Monday, October 16, 2006

“Man of the Year” scores narrow victory

"You never know what your history is going to be like until long after you're gone." --George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., May 5, 2006

In an era where we’ve learned that every vote doesn’t necessarily count, global warming and evolution are up for debate, and even the Straight Talk Express can get hijacked, it seems plausible that Americans might choose to nominate a comedian for political office. I mean, rather than elect an inadvertent comedian to a high-ranking position – such as president.

In Barry Levinson’s “Man of the Year” we meet Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams), host of a successful comedy-news program, who has just announced his very real intention of running for president. With the help of his writing staff (including Lewis Black) and manager (Christopher Walken), Dobbs lands the independent spot in the Presidential debates and gets fired up like Howard Dean on truth serum. Before we know it – Dobbs not only gets on the ballot, he gets elected.

If that seems a little far-fetched, it’s because there is another force at work – a new online voting system that takes the fear of the hanging chad out of the voting booth. Concocted by Silicon Valley geniuses, the system is safe, effective, and fool-proof… except for that one tiny counting error. When Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) finds the error days before the election, she reports it to the head of the company, who chooses to ignore it in the interest of not losing market share.

After Dobbs is declared the winner, Eleanor knows she needs to tell somebody – and decides to tell Mr. Dobbs himself.

This is where the plot gets a little murky, as Dobbs meets Eleanor and seemingly develops a non-governmental (i.e. romantic) interest in her. Meanwhile, Eleanor is surrounded by melodramatic paranoia – thanks to the voting system thugs who are trying to capture her.

While the film’s more serious undertone keeps it from slipping into absurdist territory, “Man of the Year” falters when it loses sight of the fact that it’s a comedy. The notion of romance that is introduced between Dobbs and Eleanor is forced more through plot than character, as Eleanor’s only interest seems to be unraveling her nervous conspiracy theory.

With that conceit, “Man of the Year” is an enjoyable film, and it’s refreshing to see Robin Williams emerging from his dark-and-creepy phase. Christopher Walken, too, delivers a great performance as the chain-smoking emphysema-affected manager (though I’d liked to have seen a joke or two about the tobacco lobbies.) And while Lewis Black is highly underutilized, it’s nice to have his presence as a tip of the hat to that other great comedy-news program, “The Daily Show.”

At times “Man of the Year” feels a bit like Levinson’s other creation, 1997’s “Wag the Dog.” But as that film’s circumstances (a fake war is manufactured to cover up a Presidential sex scandal) have become increasingly closer to reality in the years since, it is understandable that Levinson would hope to make a more outlandish and less likely picture (comedian running for president) … That is, unless you move to Minnesota and vote for Al Franken.

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