Man of the Year (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
"A perception of legitimacy is more important than legitimacy itself," explains one character in Barry Levinson's political comedy Man of the Year. Indeed, perception is the name of the political game, but appearances can be deceiving and that's the case with this film's marketing campaign, which would have you believe that this movie is another Robin Williams comedy when, in fact, it is a sharp-tongued political satire with a lame cable TV subplot.
Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a comedian and talk show host who is one part Jon Stewart and one part Bill Maher. When an audience member voices her displeasure with the current administration and suggests Dobbs announce his own candidacy, he runs with the idea, actually landing his name on the ballot in 13 states. Meanwhile, in the underbelly of the company that's getting rich from providing electronic voting booths to the entire country, computer techie Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) has discovered a programming glitch the booths will select the next leader of the free world alphabetically, regardless of the vote totals.
When Eleanor expresses her concerns to the president of her company, she is told that it's too late the company's stock will plummet should the public ever find out. Hmmm, did someone say, "voter fraud"? Eleanor will spend the rest of the film running around, paranoid, like Tom Cruise's character in The Firm.
In short, Man of the Year has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be. In fact, it's two wildly different movies: One an entertaining comedy with Williams spouting refreshing political humor that ignores the red state-blue state concept, the other a sterile thriller with Laura Linney waiting until the final reel to announce something to Williams that the audience knows well in advance. Actually, the audience is always one step ahead of the characters, who seem stuck in the muddled plot.
In spite of the uneven story, Man of the Year features some impressive performances, including those of Linney, Lewis Black and Christopher Walken, as Dobbs' emphysema-stricken manager. More than anything, though, it provides the perfect showcase for Williams' trademark brand of motor-mouthed humor. He delivers some fantastic speeches that hit the mark because, as the movie explains, "he sounds different, and that's why people hear him."
Levinson raises some excellent points, too could a comedian actually be elected president in today's anti-authority, celebrity-obsessed culture? but fails to ultimately drive home a lasting message.
Man of the Year wants to empower its voting audience, but mostly it just serves to further disillusion us with the shortcomings of our government. It's startling just how seemingly plausible this entire scenario is. Recent gubernatorial races in California (sorry, Mr. Schwarzenegger), Minnesota (you, too, Mr. Ventura) and possibly Pennsylvania (et tu, Mr. Swann?) have shown us that elections are quickly reverting to junior-high student council races, i.e., popularity contests. Perhaps that's the warning Levinson is trying to offer.
If so, we get the message loud and clear. It's just too bad the movie's jumbled plot keeps it from earning a ringing endorsement.