The new film from Barry Levinson, Man Of The Year, has much in common with the politicians it purports to satirize. They both promise you one thing, but once they have your vote/ticket money, they deliver you something completely different and far less appealing.
Theatre patrons walking into the film could be forgiven if they were expecting a light-hearted Robin Williams comedy about a political satirist who runs for president and wins. After all, that’s the type of movie that television commercials have been selling relentlessly in the past few weeks leading up to its release. However, the film is anything but the laugh fest promised but instead a dark, dreary film that disappoints at every turn and even invoking the old rule of “reviewing the movie you saw, not the one you had hoped to see” will not help Man Of The Year. The film remains a disjointed, unfocused mess.
Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) is the host of a late night news satire show who decides to stop complaining about politicans and run for office himself. At first he takes his campaign appearances seriously, but it isn’t until he cuts loose with the comedic outrage that made him a television star that his campaign really takes off. Still, despite the popularity of his third party candidacy, no one is more surprised the evening of the election than Dobbs himself when it is announced that he has won the Presidency. His joy is short-lived when a computer programmer (Laura Linney) at the company who manufactured the electronic voting booths used in the election tells him that there was a glitch in the electronic vote tabulation and he did not win the election. Soon the voting booth company is scrambling to spin the story their way and Dobbs is left to decide whether he should go public with what he knows or stay silent and remain the President-elect.
The movie’s problems lie within its screenplay and those problems start on page one. The film opens with Dobb’s agent (Christopher Walken) explaining to an unseen interviewer how William’s character turned from comic to candidate. Unfortunately, by glossing over what should be one of the film’s cornerstone concepts – that a political comic would take a serious stab at running for president – Dobbs’ character remains something of a cipher to audiences. Are we really to assume that all it took to put him on the campaign trail was the suggestion of a cute co-ed in his studio audience? Surely there were other factors, but one is left to make these assumptions. The narration is also inconsistent and seems to only appear when the movie does not seem to know how to move onto its next plot point.
It seems fairly obvious that the Dobbs character is in some ways modeled after comedian Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s popular news satire The Daily Show (A fact that the movie not-so-subtly reinforces by casting Daily Show personality Lewis Black in a key supporting role.). Unfortunately, though, the supposedly witty comments he makes (“Same-sex marriage? Anyone who’s been married knows it’s always the same sex!”) on his show and the campaign trail are old and stale, not the cutting edge humor that we’re told is his forte.
It is hard to believe that such a toothless satire comes from the same director whose 1997 film Wag The Dog coined a phrase that has become part of the political parlance of the country. The film’s tone is all over the place, never deciding whether it wants to be a political satire, a dark comedy, a star-crossed romance or even a political thriller. I believe that Levinson desperately wanted to make some statement about the nature of national politics today – from questions over the reliability of electronic voting machines and the impartiality of the companies that manufacture them to the way that candidates are marketed to voters (Both Dobbs’ opponents in the election – Kellogg and (General) Mills – suggest cereal.). Instead, we are left with a muddled movie which will only generate votes when it comes time to nominate the worst movies of the year.