I suppose the obvious angle for this review would be to make light of the fact that Robin Williams just got out of rehab, draw some tenuous connection to Mel Gibson or Mark Foley and suggest that — even when he is three tits to the wind — Robin Williams is currently about as funny as he is relevant, which is to say: Not at all. But somebody made an observation about Robin Williams in our comments section a month or two ago that has really stuck with me: “Imagine how it must feel to hear every day of your life that you were funnier when you were on blow?” And in the context of the newfound sense of sympathy this elicited, I suppose I began to see Robin Williams differently, to view his hyper-maniacal behavior as a sort of insecurity. Indeed, if you can overlook the often repetitive and unnecessary Ethel Merman impersonations during his interviews, it’s not hard to see a soft, almost heartbreaking, vulnerability in his eyes. And I think that’s what makes Williams a relatively remarkable dramatic actor in movies like Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, and Awakenings — the man has a tremendous deal of baggage beneath his mania, only he tries too fucking hard to keep it hidden instead of outright owning his insecurities. I dunno; maybe I’m reading too much into him, and I suspect that if I spent too much time trying to empathize with celebrities, I’d end up balled up in a corner weeping.
Of course, that’s probably a quicker, less painful route to suicidal ideation than actually sitting through Man of the Year, which is about as amusing and insightful as the illiterate excremental graffiti of an 11-year-old in the bathroom stall of a Pensacola Chuck E. Cheese. Seriously, if I wanted defanged political satire, I’d watch “SNL”; if I wanted superficial political commentary, I’d tune into Katie Couric’s nightly newscast; and if I wanted a chorus of platitudes, I’d buy the latest Bon Jovi album. But, as it turns out, Man of the Year really isn’t aiming at any of that, and calling Williams’ comedic sensibilities into question here is mostly moot, because the film is not actually a comedy. I don’t mean that as a glib way of calling Man of the Year unfunny, I mean literally: It doesn’t even try to be a comedy.
Sure, the marketing behind the film suggests that it’s (probably a bad) political satire about a Jon Stewart-like comedian who wins a presidential election and must wrestle with governing the nation as an outsider with no real political experience. But Man of the Year is closer to Will Smith’s Enemy of the State than it is to Chris Rock’s Head of State. That’s right, it’s a (positively bad) political thriller about computer glitches and corporate conspiracy, which is as shocking to one’s expectations as learning that there were aliens involved in Dude, Where’s My Car?
In fact, I’m not giving anything away that’s not apparent in the first 10 minutes of the film when I say that there is never any question about Tom Dobb’s (Williams) legitimacy. It’s made clear at the outset that his victory was never real. That was the film’s first mistake. The second is that it doesn’t focus on the actual campaign, which is over within the first 15 minutes of the movie (and from which all the one-liners in the advertisements are pulled). Clearly, Barry Levinson has learned nothing from “The West Wing” — a show that could spend a year and a half on a campaign and wrap up the election within half an episode — because the campaign is where the drama lies. Levinson — who gave us a film (Wag the Dog) that was more theoretically good than it was actually entertaining — shifts the focus to the time between the election and the inauguration, when Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), an employee for Delacroy (the company that manufactures the electronic voting machines), comes to Dobbs and informs him that his victory was a computer mistake.
For the remaining two-thirds of the film, the plot meanders, as we wonder whether Dobbs will come forward with this information and ruin his chances at becoming president, whether Delacroy will manage to cover up the mistake to save its own financial ass, and whether the henchman for the company (Jeff Goldblum) will have Green murdered to further the cover up. So, yeah: It’s not just a bad political thriller, it is — at times — decidedly grim. In fact, Levinson’s biggest mistake is trying to take the film too seriously by trying to turn it into a dark political statement about election fraud, which is a bit like turning “Jimmy Kimmel Live” into a statement about feminism — it just doesn’t compute.
“Suspense thriller” aside, when Man of the Year does try to inject the occasional bit of “Daily Show”-type humor, it comes off as tired and terribly out of touch, the sort of thing you’d expect from a geriatric screenwriter discussing “blogs,” which I suppose is sort of what Barry Levinson is. It’s foreign territory for the director, and his attempts to add a dose of cultural relevancy sound no more enlightening than bad television sitcoms name-dropping “eBay” for a laugh. It’s clear that the world has passed Levinson by, but it’s not so clear why Williams — whose last HBO special had its moments — doesn’t attempt to update the humor, or why Lewis Black agreed to be a part of the film in the first place. And I suppose it says all you need to know about Man of the Year that its climactic finale takes place on the set of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s “Weekend Update” desk and that Dobbs’ ultimate endorsement is for the status quo, which has a way of defeating the film’s entire message.
It’s a shame too, because as much as I no longer really like Williams as an actor/comedian, it’s hard not to respect him a little — as a guy who grew up on “Mork and Mindy,” I guess it stings to see his career end up this way. And somehow I doubt next year’s Mrs. Doubtfire 2 is going to offer much consolation.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives in a blue house with his wife in a small, cold town. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Man of the Year / Dustin Rowles
Film | October 13, 2006 | Comments ()