From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to The Candidate, Hollywood has continually reveled in the fantasy that maybe -- just maybe -- a real outsider might one day beat the system and ride a real wave of grass roots support into national elected office. Man of the Year, which is only Levinson's second original screenplay in a decade (after cranking out nearly a script a year during the preceding 10 years), refashions that same premise for a more cynical, post-9/11 political environment. Given the nation's almost unprecedented political polarization and record-high cynicism regarding public service, that's already a tall order -- with politics literally saturating television as never before, in everything from The West Wing to The Daily Show, it's anything but certain that audiences will pay for more of the same at the local multiplex. And for those who do, the disappointing result is likely to only reinforce their feelings of negativity.
Williams stars as Tom Dobbs, the Jon Stewart-style host of a politically themed cable comedy show who, encouraged by fans, enters the presidential race with no ambition but to shake up the stodgy two-party duopoly. But his refusal to play by the rules stirs the public's interest and, with a little help from malfunctioning electronic voting machines, he winds up winning the presidency.
To this point, Levinson is able to stay relatively faithful to his premise, raising questions about the political process while allowing Williams to indulge his improvisational talents in similar fashion to Good Morning, Vietnam. But the question of where a comedian would take the country if given the chance is soon sidetracked by a cumbersome turn into thriller territory with Laura Linney as a would-be whistleblower, pursued by the crooked executives at the firm responsible for the flawed voting machines. Subsequent turns toss the genre salad even more haphazardly, fearlessly -- and foolishly -- blending romantic comedy with satire, dramatic social commentary and whatever else seems convenient at the time. It's The Net, The American President and Bulworth all thrown conspicuously into a blender and generating a result that's just too sloppy to be digestible in any form.
The problem is clearly one of a premise in search of a story, hardly an unusual affliction in present-day Hollywood. Levinson's choice of strong supporting actors like Christopher Walken, Lewis Black and a tragically underused Jeff Goldblum masks some of the flaws but still falls short of salvaging the film from its crucial lack of story. Most egregiously, the picture betrays its own underlying philosophy about the importance of comedy in politics when, for the better part of its second hour, it becomes completely humorless.
One cannot, however, fault Levinson for not trying -- though the film skews predictably left, unavoidably reflecting the bent of its makers, the thrust is meant to be one of vaunted centrism and populism, an appeal that rings true, even if the story surrounding it falls flat.
Cast: Robin Williams, Christopher Walken, Laura Linney, Jeff Goldblum and Lewis Black
Director/Screenwriter: Barry Levinson
Producer: James G. Robinson
Rating: PG-13 for language including some crude sexual references, drug-related material and brief violence
Running time: 114 min.
Release date: October 13