Man of the Year, cagily released at just about the time when we are all praying for the election season to be over, reunites Robin Williams and writer/director Barry Levinson. An earlier collaboration, Good Morning, Vietnam, resulted in Academy Award nominations for both. The present effort is not in the same league, despite its serio-comic mixture. But it doesn't quite deserve the lousy reviews it has reaped, despite its problems with tone and plot.
Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a wise-cracking TV talk show host who cheerfully takes on the role of gadfly to the state. (The film refers several times to the increasing number of people who get their news from comics Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, and Bill Maher, rather than the evening newscasts.) Following a pre-broadcast stand-up routine, a fan asks him why he doesn't run for President himself. Almost overnight, it seems, he takes up the challenge, despite the misgivings of his agent and friend, Jack (Christopher Walken). Vowing to serve only the interests of his constituents, he embarks on a bus tour but refuses to take any corporate money or run TV ads.
Trouble is, he plays it straight, putting his audiences to sleep and barely showing up on the polls' radar. Not until he gets accepted into a debate between the major party candidates does he make a splash by ditching the clichĆ©s and breaking the rules. But even that seems too little, too late, until a computer glitch puts him in office"”the nation having abandoned paper ballots in the wake of past "irregularities"¯ in, just to pick some random states, Florida and Ohio.
The geek who has helped design the faulty program, Elinor Green (Laura Linney), attempts to tell the honest Tom about the error, though it costs her her job and her reputation. This leaves Tom with the unenviable decision of whether to quit as President-elect or take the oath of office and do the best he can"”his total lack of experience notwithstanding.
If all this sounds a mite fantastic, Minnesotans need only recall our own ex-Guv, Jesse "The Mind"¯ Ventura and his come from outta nowhere triumph. Levinson, who also directed Wag the Dog, treats the material with levity, for the most part, but he admixes some heavier thematic stuff. The blend doesn't always take: the film's tone suffers as the plot jumps between the high (and low) jinks of the Dobbs victory and aftermath, on the one hand, and the suspense of Elinor's employers trying to stop her from going public. The editing is inconsistent: some scenes play too long, others are cut short. And the payoff, which faces the same problem as an earlier, similar move, Dave, in getting out of the corner the movie paints itself into.
For the most part, though, Levinson plays to his strength"”his star. Williams does fine with the comic patter and throwaway lines Levinson (and probably he himself) supplies. His Punch-like phiz and trademark rapid-fire delivery keep the comic momentum going, and Dobbs' earnestness plays off against Williams' wiseguy persona. Levinson can't resist the urge to speechify, at points. He's especially ticked about TV and politics, of course, but he broadens the field of vision to get at the way we do politics in general"”the substitution of image for substance, appearance for reality. (On the campaign trail, Dobbs spends a lot of time in makeup; he jokes about Nixon losing the first debate to Kennedy because he "looked sick."¯
Man of the Year won't be winning any prizes. Its problems notwithstanding, though, it reminds us that politics has become at least as much show biz and spin as serious debate. As the current wave of nauseous nattering of negative nabobs crests over us, we could all use a laugh.