Have you ever thought about what might happen if Jon Stewart, host of His own popular Comedy Central television show taking a daily, critical look at the news and politics, ran for President of the United States? Well, you don't need to. Writer/ director Barry Levinson ("Wag the Dog", "Rainman", "Tin Men") has done the thinking for you in his new film "Man of the Year" starring Robin Williams.
Tom Dobbs (Williams), star of a popular comedy show taking a critical look at daily news and politics, announces he is going to run for President of the United States. An audience member makes the suggestion during the warm up and everyone in the studio goes nuts. The irreverent comedian decides to make the announcement, more as a joke, but before he can whistle the Star Spangled Banner, he is on the ballot in 13 states and criss crossing the country in a campaign bus. His longtime manager (Christopher Walken) and writer (Lewis Black) both feel he needs to let loose and take advantage of his moment in the spotlight, but Dobbs feels he must remain serious and discuss the issues. Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), a programmer at a large computer company who manufactured the electronic tolling booths, realizes there is an error with the program. Her bosses turn a deaf ear; if she is right, the profits will plummet. Eleanor decides to try to contact the President-Elect and they form a friendship that gradually grows into something more significant. But will she be able to tell him he didn't actually win the election? And if so, what will he do?
"Man of the Year" contains a few of William's trademark riffs, but the film is, more or less, a drama. This is not necessarily a bad thing, even though the film is being marketed as a comedy. What is more disappointing is that the film doesn't go far enough to take a critical look at the politics or news of the day.
Imagine if you were watching "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and he started telling a mix of standard jokes, not related to the daily politics or news. It wouldn't be very interesting. "Man of the Year" suffers from the same problem.
Williams is allowed to do a few of his comedic rants; during a segment set at his television show, during a televised debate with the Democratic President and his Republican running mate, but the jokes are extremely vague. Dobbs talks about education, same sex marriage, flag burning and more. Sure, these are topics we are concerned with, but his jokes aren't specific, they only address the issues in a vague way. Nothing about the War in Iraq, the Hurricane Katrina debacle, congressional scandals, lobbyist scandals, etc. Because Dobbs is rather vague, and Dobbs is the centerpiece of the film, the film is also vague.
The one point when the film makes anything close to a pointed barb at politics is during the televised debate. Both the Democratic President running for reelection and the Republican Senator running against him are spouting the same buzzwords, talking about how similar they are. Sound familiar? Now, if Levinson had really wanted to take this home, they would talk about "Lock Boxes", but he doesn't go that far. There is a nice moment during the debate when the Republican Senator is caught on camera during Dobbs tirade. The Senator realizes he is on camera, and just smiles, trying to win votes.
"Man of the Year" is interesting and amusing for the first thirty minutes or so, when Dobbs is still a television personality and running for the Presidency. But when Dobbs begins his campaign, he addresses the public in all seriousness. Both Menken (Walken) and Eddie (Lewis Black) implore him to cut loose, use the few moments he has to get the people thinking. But he takes the campaign very seriously and bores the public. Unfortunately, he bores us in the process. Only during the debate does he really cut loose.
The film also includes a lengthy and distracting subplot about the company behind the Electronic Polling Places. Early in the film, Eleanor (Linney), runs some tests on the computer model. Every time she votes for the Republican Senator, the President still wins. She brings up the problem to her supervisors, including the company President who tells her it isn't important. Then, when Dobbs joins the race, she realizes he will win the election in the states he is on the ballot. A couple of times, the film shows Eleanor placed in danger, as part of the conspiracy. But this does nothing for the film's politics. It takes time away from the main story, that of an irreverent comedian running for President, and telling the people what they need to hear, which means there is less time for the candidate to actually say anything about the political system.
Also, this storyline seems like something more at home in a film based on a John Grisham or David Balducci book. But in those films, you would not have Williams playing a television comedian running for President. You would have Gene Hackman or David Straitharn playing the Presidential candidate, without the jokes.
Because of all of this unnecessary, extra stuff, the film loses focus. Real fast.
Then, when Eleanor tries to tell Dobbs what she has learned, she becomes charmed by him. Thus, we have another subplot, involving their romance. Will she be able to tell him what happened? What will happen if she does?
When Christopher Walken is in a film, you can expect at least a little oddball goofiness. He has a couple of monologues, but his character is quickly taken out of the picture and he becomes a background fixture, appearing only briefly throughout.
Lewis Black, normally very acerbic on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart", seems to have been cast to simply sit around and laugh at William's few jokes.
"Man of the Year" is even more disappointing when you consider the other films Barry Levinson has directed. But let’s just consider this film with "Wag the Dog". There is no comparison. "Wag" had something to say about our current preoccupation with media and politics. "Man" has nothing to say about anything pressing right now. I have heard that, perhaps, this was done to prevent the film from becoming dated. Then why not have Dobbs rail against the pathetic voter turnout in our country, our apathetic view towards politics, something that is chronically wrong with our system. Because the film attempts to address some particularly vague ideas, it doesn't successfully capture our attention or move us to action.