Care to see a bad political satire? How about a bad stand-up film? Or a bad political thriller? Or a bad romantic comedy? Well, you needn’t waste your time going to four separate movies, because “Man of the Year” offers you all of them in one not-so-dandy package. This Barry Levinson-Robin Williams picture, about a television comic–a mixture of Jon Stewart or Bill Maher and Williams himself in stand-up mode–who decides to run for president on a whim and finds himself victorious until corporate shenanigans are revealed, is a hybrid of so many parts that it would be unwieldy even if were executed very well. But as it happens, it isn’t.
The movie begins with two unrelated events. Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), who works for Delacroy Voting Systems, uncovers a glitch in the company’s computer model that’s been selected to count the ballots in the upcoming presidential election. She reports the problem to her bosses and insists it be repaired before the election, but the firm’s malevolent fixer, Stewart (Jeff Goldblum), decides instead to bury the secret, which could destroy the company, by drugging honest Eleanor in order to make her accusations seem like the insane ravings of an addict.
Meanwhile TV talk-show host/political satirist Tom Dobbs (Williams), egged on by his audience, announces that he’ll run for president as an independent, much to the surprise and initial chagrin of his manager Jack Menken (Christopher Walken) and cynical writer Eddie Langston (Lewis Black). At first he campaigns on a serious discussion of the issues, boring his listeners in the process. But after he switches to outrageous comic rants in a televised debate against the major-party candidates, he unexpectedly carries all thirteen states in which he’s on the ballot, winning an electoral college majority.
All seems well until Eleanor turns up, telling Dobbs, who’s instantly smitten with her, that he didn’t actually win at all–that it was the computer glitch that gave him the election. So Tom faces a moral dilemma: should he keep the office under false pretenses or give it up? And the arrival of Stewart’s goons, intending to silence Green, makes the matter all the more urgent.
Levinson has a lot on his mind here. He wants to make a modern “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” He wants to provide a stage for Williams’ rapid-fire riffs. He wants to make a satiric commentary on the vagaries of the 2000 presidential election and the dangers of voting machines that don’t leave paper trails. And he wants to interject the elements of a serious political thriller into the mix. Maybe someone could have pulled off such a juggling act, but he’s certainly not the person to do it. His writing is curiously flat, not only in the surprisingly tedious scenes involving Walken and Black on the one hand and Williams and Linney on the other, but in Williams’ manic moments (many of which must have been improvised). (Levinson tries for a spectacular outburst in a self-serving monologue he puts into Goldblum’s mouth, but even here inspiration fails him.) And his direction is flaccid, allowing the picture to ramble on for nearly two hours.
As for the cast, no one distinguishes himself. Williams never remotely suggests a successful television performer, let alone a plausible candidate; he’s too “hot” for either medium. Linney works hard, but never finds the right blend of comedy and seriousness, while Walken and Black both do their normal shtick with second-rate material. And though Goldblum pulls out all the stops, he’s delivering a message that comes across as ersatz Mamet. Technically the movie’s okay but no more.
The thematic and tonal schizophrenia of “Man of the Year” may mirror the political divisions rampant in today’s red state-blue state America, but that doesn’t make the cacophony any more pleasurable. In the whole and in its parts, this movie doesn’t deserve your vote at the box-office.