Robin Williams, Laura Linney, Christopher Walken, Lewis Black
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Have you ever watched a film and thought to yourself "Wow, what happened? That could have been a great film."
About 20 minutes into "Man of the Year," the latest collaboration between writer/director Barry Levinson and Robin Williams, I couldn't help but wonder "What went wrong?"
As in his much more entertaining and insightful "Wag the Dog," Levinson mines the political arena for "Man of the Year," an awkward hodgepodge of comedy, anxiety, thrills and conspiracies starring Robin Williams, a late-night comedy show host named Tom Dobbs who is inspired to run for president after casual comments on his show lead to several million e-mails of encouragement.
In a matter of hours, he's announced his candidacy and, even more quickly it seems, he's on the ballot in 13 states. His agent (Christopher Walken) becomes his campaign manager, and his head writer (Lewis Black) becomes his, well, speech writer.
Dobbs' honesty, authenticity and irreverence quickly makes his a campaign favorite. While he initially favors a straightforward approach dealing with issues, despite the encouragement of his manager and writer to be funny, he unfurls his funny, yet pointed political commentary on the biggest stage of them all for presidential candidates...the national debates.
If the storyline were to stop right here, Levinson would have created a familiar story unpleasing to critics yet likely to win over audiences. Williams can turn the "fish out of water" storyline into a comedy goldmine, largely through his improvisational, fast-paced and over-the-top spewings. Sure, it wouldn't have been "Wag the Dog" or even "Bulworth," but at least it wouldn't have been Chris Rock's horrid "Head of State."
Okay, it's actually not as weak as "Head of State."
Yet, it is in films such as "Man of the Year" that he continuously slows his writing an directorial weaknesses. Either he's not yet figured out how to rein in Williams' humor or he simply is an "either/or" director. He must write and direct either comedy or drama...his style just doesn't seem to allow for the two to coexist.
Levinson almost seems to be making a sharp and insightful political comedy along the lines of the much more brilliant "Thank You for Smoking." Levinson, unfortunately, doesn't come close to succeeding.
Thrown into the mix of the irreverent political candidate is a conspiracy story featuring Laura Linney as Eleanor, an employee of the electronic voting machine corporation who runs the nationwide election. When she discovers a computer glitch that, most definitely, will impact the election's results the CEO dismisses her ideas and, in a downward spiral of conspiracy dramedy nearly dismisses her. Linney, who manages to turn in brilliant performances in nearly every role she encounters, barely stays afloat here with a role that is so poorly and haphazardly assembled that she's forced to bounce between laughter, paranoia, fear, psychosis and, ultimately, stupidity. As the lawyer for the big, evil corporation Jeff Goldblum is modestly effective in a relatively brief appearance...largely because his role is strictly one-note.
Robin Williams, who is very able to balance the demands of a role that is both comic and dramatic, is most enjoyable during scenes that feel spontaneous and combustive. For a good 20 minutes after the televised debate, it's a joy to watch Williams literally throw himself at the screen. He spits, spews and savagely rips at the American political system.
Then, however, Levinson floats back into political thriller territory and Williams is left with a doughnut hole where the comedy used to be.
Walken and Black, as well, feel incredibly restrained throughout much of "Man of the Year," though Black has two or three scenes where it almost feels like we've walked in on the middle of his stand-up routine. It's often incredibly funny, but very jarring in terms of the film's continuity.
"Man of the Year" falls so short that it becomes impossible to ignore Dick Pope's distracting cinematography and a soundtrack that feels as if it was simply thrown into the film because a song was needed.
Sometimes, there are films where you reach the end of the film and you start re-writing the script yourself. Thinking over scenes, dialogue and characters you find yourself thinking "Hmmm. This would have worked so much better." "Man of the Year" is such a film.
On the strength of the popularity of Williams and Levinson, "Man of the Year" is likely to open with decent box-office. However, as Dobbs so vividly points out, the American public is easily influenced and the ones who should get our votes seldom do.
"Man of the Year" doesn't get my vote, and it doesn't deserve yours either.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic