Man of the Year
Right from the get-go, there are troubling signs around "Man of the Year." One: It's the film that apparently drove Robin Williams into rehab. Two (and here's a little tip for the marketing folks): A preview for a comedy should have at least one actual joke in it. I walked into this film with a real sense of dread, because a comedy that can't muster a funny joke for its own 30-second ad portends bad things for any moviegoer who enters the darkened theater to subject himself to the full two hours.
Hollywood remakes this particular "common man takes the White House" movie about once very two years (see also "Head of State," "Dave," the Carter Administration), so it's anyone's guess as to what inspired writer and director Barry Levinson to think we needed another one. The movie starts by speedily narrating its way along Tom Dobbs's (Robin Williams) transition from comedian to candidate who turns suddenly serious on the campaign trail. Will he "rediscover the funny" at a crucial moment in his campaign to win the adoration of the voters? (Spoiler: YES.)
On this premise, the movie gains some early momentum but once Dobbs wins the election it essentially takes a sharp turn into a brick wall and implodes, immolating all humor in the process. Suddenly, the movie can't decide whether it wants to be a comedy, a tense thriller about errant voting machines, or a love story between Dobbs and computer techie Eleanor Green (Laura Linney). Director Barry Levinson lurches from one genre to the other and in the process delivers what may be some of the most awkward transitions in the history of cinema.
The screenplay for "Man of the Year" reads like it was abandoned in the middle of its eighth rewrite as some studio executive said, "Enough already -- Wrap this fucking thing up for the election season or we're killing the entire project." (Hey Barry, am I close?) In some places, it feels like the screenplay was abandoned altogether in favor of just sticking the principal characters -- Dobbs and advisors Jack (Christopher Walken) and Eddie (Lewis Black) -- in a room and letting them banter amongst themselves. By far the most annoying character is Eleanor, the programmer who discovers irregularities in the voting system and then spends the rest of the movie scurrying around the story like a startled cat. In case it's not clear to you during all this that Dobbs is supposed to be funny, there are endless shots of other characters laughing at his jokes, which is as close as Levinson can get to a laugh track without getting kicked out of the Academy.
By the end, the movie feels like a cruel experiment to see how long an audience will sit there and watch Levinson make it up as he goes along. The final insult (if you endure long enough to wait for it) is the last scene, which feels like a product placement for Saturday Night Live. If you're wondering why it feels that way, consider that this movie and SNL answer to the same corporate parent, and you'll leave the movie with the unclean, sinking feeling of someone who's just been molested by a corporate executive. And if that's not a lesson on how the American system works, I don't know what is.
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