Man of the Year
Universal Pictures
Directed by Barry Levinson
Starring Robin Williams, Laura Linney, Christopher Walken, and Jeff Goldblum
Rated PG-13

Man of the Year can’t decide if it’s a hilarious political satire or if it’s a fact-finding thriller in the vein of The Pelican Brief. Rather than picking a direction and running with it, the film tries to be both. The result is a mess. Writer/director Barry Levinson’s script tells the story of Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-styled television host running for — and winning — the presidency of the United States of America. One day during his pre-broadcast warm-up, a member of Dobbs’ audience suggests he run for president. That gets the ball rolling, and suddenly he’s a major candidate. But the movie’s not about how he gets elected or the way he shakes up the political process. Instead, the film glosses right over Tom Dobbs’ entertainment career and subsequent rise to legitimate candidacy in a brief opening montage narrated by his manager Jack Menken (Christopher Walken), rushing on to a strange voter fraud, election cover-up plot that involves corporate America taking over the election process.

It’s not long before Eleanor (Laura Linney), an honest employee at the evil, profit-driven mega-corp that created a “foolproof” computer program to manage the election process, discovers a problem. She sets out to hunt down Tom Dobbs and prove that the election was rigged. Along the way, she dodges murderous goons and syringe-toting assholes bent on subverting democracy, hiding the truth, etc.

Before long, Eleanor’s corruption road trip has taken over, marginalizing the much more interesting story of Robin Williams’ engaging Tom Dobbs character Sorry guys, hanging chad has been done to death, and nobody is interested. The story here should be Dobbs, and whenever he’s on screen making poignant jokes at the expense of his political adversaries, the movie really works. Williams is on his game, ripping apart all the pomposity and rot of America’s political process. He’s funny, he’s vicious, and he’s absolutely right. Why doesn’t the movie give us more of it? What little screen time he is given is almost wasted. Dobbs kicks off his campaign playing it serious, boring not only voters, but the movie’s audiences, to death. Until he lets loose, Tom Dobbs is a big fat zero. Even when he’s switched on, we only see Dobbs in brief glimpses, while the film obsesses over Linney’s truth-hunting software engineer. For her part, Linney’s never given a bad performance. Here, though, the script simply doesn’t have a good role for her. The same is true of Walken, who tries gamely as Dobb’s longtime manager, but is ultimately wasted. Why bother getting Walken when you could’ve plugged anyone into the part? With a little more of Dobbs on the attack, Levinson might have had a memorable comedy with a big satirical bite. Instead we get a milquetoasty thriller with political leanings that never quite fit into place.

I think the real problem is simply that writer/director Levinson just doesn’t believe in his own premise. His entire script is dedicated to making excuses for it. Man of the Year doesn’t believe in itself, and it doesn’t believe in America. The movie dooms us all to a world where voters are too stupid to do the right thing, and our only hope for a future free of bought-and-sold politicians is a computer error that subverts the democratic process. It’s the missed opportunity of the year.