Judge Brett Cullum voted for the other guy.
Jon Stewart for President!
Man of the Year is the latest dramatic comedy directed by Barry Levinson (Good Morning Vietnam). From the previews it looked like a simple, funny movie where Robin Williams (Good Morning Vietnam) gets elected President. Yet when moviegoers showed up to watch a comedian slip into the White House, they got a serious meditation on elections and big corporations peppered with one-liners. The movie turns on a dime, becoming a political thriller halfway through. A conspiracy pops up, and this light romp transforms into what should have been called The Manchurian Man of the Year. It's not what you expect, and it's not what the trailer would have you believe.
Facts of the Case
Tom Dobbs (Williams) is a comedian who hosts a show that makes fun of politicians and current events. He's basically Jon Stewart or Bill Maher. At a taping, an audience member suggests he should run for the Oval Office. For some reason he does. In an unlikely campaign fueled by the Internet and not one dime spent on television spots, Dobbs begins to gather steam as the independent choice for President. He is even allowed on the televised national debate.
Meanwhile, a software company prepares to launch their voting machines across the nation to handle the new election. One of their head programmers (Laura Linney) randomly stumbles across a glitch in the system that skews the numbers of the voters. She is told to shut up about it, with the future of the company riding on their innovative interface being the new method of democracy. When she doesn't agree, the company ensures that nobody will believe her if she tries anything funny.
Due to the glitch, Dobbs wins, and the software designer is racing against time—and an evil corporation intent on destroying her—before she outs their mistake. So while the comedian prepares to swear himself in, a conspiracy is boiling over. Can the fraudulent results be corrected? Or will the corporation succeed in covering up the fact that in this election, nobody's vote counted?
Man of the Year wins my vote for the most mishandled marketing campaign of the year. It promised one thing, and delivered another. While the previews showed us Robin Williams doing his comedy thing, the actual film was full of angst and intrigue over an unintentionally fixed election. I felt like most voters after their candidate wins. I was promised one thing, and got something altogether different. Hollywood is worse than a politician when it comes to this sort of bait and switch tactic, and Man of the Year suffered for it.
The movie itself is severely flawed. There are too many lapses in logic I couldn't get around. How would one woman alone know a software program had a glitch? Especially a software program the government would use for an election? And how could anyone believe a comic would get elected as President anyway? Oh wait. Who's governor of California right now? (Okay, so the action star is not a comedian, but you get my drift.) A man gets elected for acting obnoxious and never truly addressing the issues well. Think Ross Perot and you're there. The movie plays out as fantasy, because it never feels real as it progresses. You have to suspend your disbelief on one too many occasions for Man of the Year to work, and in the end these missteps kill the movie. Yet it criticizes the shortcomings of the political process, even if it is hard to keep from rolling your eyes at the dumb proceedings as it crashes into the finale.
Levinson originally wanted Howard Stern for the lead in this movie. Stern would have been an excellent candidate, as would real life political comedians such as Jon Stewart or Bill Maher. Because of Howard's commitments to radio, the project was switched into a Robin Williams vehicle. Williams is good, and we believe he could be an honest guy unwittingly caught up in a maelstrom. What we can't believe is his character Tom Dobbs would be allowed to run a campaign like the one he does without being a laughing stock. There is a sequence during the televised national Presidential debate where Dobbs emerges from behind his podium and begins attacking the other candidates. He does a Robin Williams routine complete with stale jokes we've heard from Robin a couple of times in the last few years. In this moment Man of the Year becomes so unbelievable it can't recover. The rest of the film proceeds like this. I couldn't mention some of the turns without being completely spoiler ridden, but they are as improbable as the debate scene—and then some.
The scenes with Linney and her struggle to bring the truth to light seem to be from a different movie entirely. When contrasted to the lunacy of Tom Dobbs and the comical campaign, they feel like someone spliced together Animal House with All the President's Men. The two strands interconnect eventually and water each other down. The comedy is sucked right out of Williams' scenes, and the urgency is watered down from Linney's. It just doesn't gel, and we're stuck in a movie that has an identity crisis from the first reel to the last shot. Oh yeah: The film also attempts a stab at romantic comedy with Linney and Williams becoming attracted to each other. Unfortunately, the pair display an oil and water chemistry. Williams and Linney seem awkward in any romantic scenes, and this causes more major problems.
The DVD of Man of the Year does fine by the movie, but never offers us a good explanation of anything. At least it skips presenting the trailers which mislead everyone. What we do get is a perfectly fine transfer, and a nice surround mix that is front and center heavy. There are two featurettes—one on Robin Williams, and the other on the making of the film. Both are short, but give you a chance to see some improvised Williams lunacy that is inspired and funny. This is a standard DVD release with just a couple of obligatory features thrown on for good measure.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For the first hour, Man of the Year gets things right. It makes fun of the political system without ever resorting to bashing Democrats or Republicans. It smartly handles everything wrong with elections, and does so in a witty way. Too bad about the last hour when everything hits the crapper. This could have been one of the best political satires put out since Levinson's own Wag the Dog, but by the finale we've lost faith. I hate it when smart movies go dumb, but have to admit the first sixty minutes seem smart. But in the end I'll take Head of State or Dave as my favorite "common man gets to the White House" comedy any day.
The casting is really great, and Levinson could have made a watchable film with the stars. Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone) plays a likable manager who seems like a loving father figure to Dobbs. It's a brilliant performance from a man who is known generally for being creepy. Comedian Lewis Black also gets a star turn as a producer who enters politics on the campaign trail. Seems the best bits come when Williams, Walken, and Black are allowed to vamp with each other. Perhaps the movie should have concentrated only on the campaign trail, forgotten the hideous conspiracy subplot, and explore what happens when a comedian becomes a politician. That would have saved everyone a lot of embarrassment and audiences the pain of the crappy climax.
Man of the Year is exactly like a Presidential candidate coupled with a first term. During the campaign you're with him and he seems smart. Then after the election you just can't believe you elected this guy who can't keep a promise and seems easy to make fun of. The movie drifts from "pretty smart" to "this is the dumbest thing ever" in sixty minutes. It feels like it was being developed, and then someone decided to just finish the script overnight with half of it to go. It was also severely mismarketed since it was billed as a comedy, and aspires to be a romantic comedy political thriller. On the upside we do get to see Walken, Williams and Black vamp it up on a tour bus. My suggestion? Pretend this is a lost episode of The West Wing, and only watch the first hour. After that the whole film implodes, and we get a climax that exists solely for trying to give Saturday Night Live credibility.
Guilty of bringing up all the icky feelings of the elections it is satirizing. Man of the Year fails to complete a term without embarrassing the country.
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• Featurette on Robin Williams
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