Voter Fraud

Barry Levinson wags the dog again in Man of the Year.

Man of the Year
Tom Dobbs is a loose cannon, played with restraint by Robin Williams.
Tom Dobbs is a loose cannon, played with restraint by Robin Williams.
Barry Levinson hasn't made a movie of note in almost a decade -- not since 1997's Wag the Dog, to be precise, and even that was less a work of substantial relevance than a bit of lucky timing based on someone else's better novel. Granted, it had its moments -- at last, it seemed, Levinson had found his range as a maker of gentle satire -- but they were too often stretched too far; at 23 minutes, say, it would have been a sharp masterpiece rather than a soft kick in the collective nuts. Everything since then -- well, it's better to pretend that Levinson's been off woodshedding; just the thought of such product as Envy, Sphere, Liberty Heights, and Bandits is enough to send one scrambling to the back catalog for signs that maybe the guy was overrated all along. (Then again, Rain Man and Toys aren't exactly waiting for their Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.)

Levinson's return to the political realm, Man of the Year is no heroic comeback; far from it, even if it's better than the trailer makes it appear. (The ads give off the decidedly acrid stench of give-up; nothing waves the white flag harder than scattershot scenes of Robin Williams in overdrive, trying hard to remind people why they ever liked him in the first place.) Buried beneath its pale satiric surface is a not-bad idea -- what would happen if an outsider candidate, a TV comedian played by Williams, became a White House insider -- but Levinson's too distracted to make any kind of point. He loses his movie, his audience, and his purpose in a tangle of conspiracy theories and crackpot notions that sink the movie just when it begins to transcend expectations. In short, it would have been great if it had stopped, oh, 12 minutes in. No such luck, though do feel free to walk out when Laura Linney shows.

Nothing against Linney, always a fine actress who brings substance even to meaningless roles. But her appearance here, as a worker at a voting-machine manufacturing company ruled by despots more concerned with profit than precision, throws the movie out of whack. What could have been something prescient and relevant -- never more so than at a time when Texas contends with electing Texas Jewboy Kinky Friedman as its governor -- ventures deep into nutjob territory that even Oliver Stone has abandoned for higher ground. We're never quite sure what the movie's supposed to be about: the absurdity of the election process or the corruption of politics by moneymen. Either one's a no-brainer gimme; Levinson's hardly the white-knight satirist the left's been waiting for. But at least he should pick an idea and stick with it.

Williams' Tom Dobbs, the comic-turned-candidate, is meant to be an amalgam of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher -- both of whom exist in this movie's universe, which makes the casting of The Daily Show commentator Lewis Black as Dobbs' gag writer, Eddie Langston, more than a bit befuddling. But he's neither incisive nor a bit funny; Dobbs is the kind of softball comic who compares politicians to diapers; he's more Jay Leno, come to think of it.

At first, his is a tepid campaign -- more Michael Dukakis than Willie Stark. Dobbs is an earnest candidate, slow to crack wise on the long trail, much to the chagrin of his manager (Christopher Walken, doing Christopher Walken) and campaign staff. But during a televised debate, as the Republican and Democratic candidates keep agreeing with and smiling at each other, he cuts loose and goes on a protracted rant that proves he's indeed an alternative candidate -- not just an outsider, but a loose cannon capable of blowing the establishment to bits. Which he does -- sort of, but not really. Turns out, he does get elected, but only because of a computer glitch that Linney's character, Eleanor, brought to the attention of her boss (Jeff Goldblum, a tad scarier than usual) right before he had injected her with enough illegal drugs to make her look like a less-than-trustworthy source.

Had Levinson chosen to make, say, Mr. Dobbs Goes to Washington rather than venture into Parallax View terrain, maybe Man of the Year would have been tolerable. Williams, despite his occasional shticky asides, plays Dobbs with considerable restraint; Levinson hasn't reteamed with his Good Morning, Vietnam star to do a remake, blessedly. Tom Dobbs is precisely the kind of role he needed after a litany of bombs and embarrassments; there's some meat on these bare bones. But the writer-director has nothing to say about politics. His idea of a radical position is taking the stance that all politicians say the same thing, which is nothing at all. Much like the man of the year himself.

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