The Austin Chronicle

Man of the Year

Rated PG-13, 115 min. Directed by Barry Levinson. Starring Robin Williams, Christopher Walken, Laura Linney, Lewis Black, Jeff Goldblum, David Alpay.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 20, 2006

The premise here is simple, timely, loaded: What if the shoot-from-the-hip host of a wildly popular cable-television fake-news program ran for the American presidency and won? Clearly Levinson, reteaming with his manic Good Morning, Vietnam star, is a fan of Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and this leaden attempt to milk political satire from the obvious is only slightly less hilarious than Kim Jong-il's nuclear gambit. (To be fair, North Korea's despot-for-life struck comedy gold ages ago with his daring sartorial sensibilities and Eraserhead coif, a peerless combination that straddles the DMZ between zany and WTF? with ginchy aplomb.) As TV pundit Tom Dobbs, Williams is initially given free rein to unleash his whip-smart comic id, much as he did in Good Morning, Vietnam – the trouble here is that every single one of his gags falls flat, whether he's warming up his TV audience with a painfully unfunny stream-of-consciousness monologue or shredding the niceties of the televised presidential debates before taking the White House in an altogether unsurprising surprise. Rarely has Williams ever seemed so rote, so glaringly sleepwalking through a role. It's doubly odd that the comedian and committed liberal would switch to autopilot on what should be a dream project for him, one with such a killer idea behind it that it ought to dazzle even the most apathetic political fence-sitter. But no, Williams' cheerfully annoying character ends up mouthing the very same mindless platitudes that have been bullied into meaninglessness by the bipartisan political machine in both the real and reel worlds. Watching Williams unsuccessfully casting his wit about Man of the Year, desperately searching for some honest-to-goodness guffaws, is an exercise in eager over-earnestness, and bracingly unfulfilling. Man of the Year's script (by Levinson) wears its heart on its sleeve, which is part of the problem in a ridiculously overplotted story that also involves Linney's discovery of fraudulent voting machines (and an evil Goldblum, seemingly reprising his calculating Mr. Frost role) and Walken (as Dobbs' chain-smoking manager) tussling with pulmonary doom. None of these subplots is necessary or all that relevant to the main narrative, and the resultant clutter makes Man of the Year one helluva schizophrenic exercise in shrill cinematic politics. Levinson should know better. After all, he covered very similar terrain in the smart, biting Wag the Dog nearly a decade ago, and he's got everything from Tanner '88 to Bob Roberts to Bulworth to point the way for him. But instead of being the hippest kid on the block, this plays like some ranty, paranoid comic thriller. It'd be more fun watching Jimmy Stewart get the beat-down from Claude Rains on the Senate floor; when Mr. Williams goes to Washington, the result is a total snooze.

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