½/**** Image A Sound A Extras C-
starring Robin Williams, Christopher Walken, Laura Linney, Jeff Goldblum
written and directed by Barry Levinson
by Walter Chaw Notorious dullard Barry Levinson's second try at Wag the Dog, the Robin Williams vehicle Man of the Year is a limp wrist waved weakly at no more pathetic a target than new voting technology. The story, such as it is, involves a late-night political comedian/talk show pundit (in the Jon Stewart mold, I guess, if Jon Stewart were stupid, unfunny, and irritating) named Tom Dobbs (Williams) who carries his antiquated shtick all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue on the back of a faulty computerized voting system. Frail egghead techie Eleanor (Laura Linney, too good for this shit) discovers her company's HAL-like flaw (hardly godlike in her erudition, she puzzles out that the digital voting booths choose winners alphabetically), and then promptly goes on the lam after an inexplicable and out-of-tune assault hays her wires and inspires her to seek out the freshly-minted POTUS-elect to inform him of the error. Meanwhile, Dobbs keeps acting like that asshole Robin Williams, desperately in need of a strong hand at his reins lest he run roughshod over his co-stars, the script, sense, respectability, plausibility, and so on down the line.
Williams gets to be sad, gets to be righteous, gets to do his bad impersonations of gay people--gets, most importantly, to be the lone truth-teller in a world of vicious un-truths. He poses here as the voice of the people (positioning the picture he ostensibly anchors as somewhere between Dave and The American President in terms of fluffy pinko politics), believing, along with Levinson and the other dimwits guffawing at his Mork-from-Ork histrionics, that mortal wounds are being inflicted on partisan politics by declarations that special interest groups are corrupting forces and that televised presidential debates are ridiculous spectacles. If you need Man of the Year to tell you the kinds of things that Man of the Year tells you, then everything that's wrong with this country and our bellicose, arrogant leadership is probably your fault, anyway. Its obviousness doesn't prevent the film from exuding self-satisfaction, though, marking it as the "comedy" version of Steve Zaillian's disastrous All the King's Men (in truth, the two films are equally funny), complete with bad casting decisions, poor direction, and a screenplay that needs not another run through the typewriter, but a first run through the shredder.
Lewis Black appears as a comedy writer, Christopher Walken appears as a sometimes-wheelchair-bound manager, and Williams's Dobbs, at one point, appears before Congress dressed like George Washington. That's when I lost all willingness to play along with the slack premise driving Man of the Year, because while you can spit all you want on the man, once you start mocking the actual institution it's not fun anymore. Dissent is indeed the essence of true patriotism, but being a disrespectful clown is something of which the villains of any political piece should be guilty, not the hero. That's the tragedy of the film, really: that although Levinson could write this crap, he couldn't conceive of it as a dark comedy in which this obvious buffoon is obviously a buffoon in the eyes of everyone in the picture, yet nonetheless poses a threat for the simple reason that he knows just enough to influence people with the strings of garbage trailing out of his ass. Man of the Year should have been about an undeserving guy who squeaks into office, delivered there by malfeasance, ignorance, and the un-checked/un-balanced providence of our Judicial Branch--only to proceed to ruin the economy and the country's reputation in the world theatre, kill off thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Middle-Eastern folks, engage in acts of illegal domestic espionage, and sanction the torture of enemy combatants without giving them the benefit of bedrock American values like due process and proper representation. Now that would've been hilarious.
Instead, Levinson steers Man of the Year into a dopey subplot involving an evil computer magnate's hunting and attempted murder of one of his ex-employees (already discredited in the public eye, by the way) while encouraging Williams to exhume his exhausted riffs to the orgasmic admiration of countless cutaway reaction shots. 'Williams must be funny,' Levinson sledgehammers, 'look how hard the whores I've hired for this film semi-capably pretend to find him amusing.' (The picture is a half-step away from installing a running laugh-track.) The only thing educational about the piece is its stunning revelation that some people must actually still think Williams is hilarious; and the only thing entertaining about it is watching other people in the audience actively deserve more movies like this starring more performers like Williams and directed by people like Levinson. If not for Linney and what is actually a powerhouse turn buried under tons of flab, I'd actually hate Man of the Year more than All the King's Men. And that's a lot of hate.
by Bill Chambers Universal brings Man of the Year to DVD in an exceptional 2.39 anamorphic widescreen presentation.* The level of detail, not at all falsified by edge-enhancement, is remarkable, and although the film is purposefully bathed in amber, the range of colours and depth of saturation frankly took my breath away. The perhaps-surprisingly immersive Dolby Digital 5.1 audio likewise transcends the mediocrity of the movie proper, especially in a "gotcha" moment that caught me off-guard like none has in years; dialogue is, as we say in these parts, lamentably clear.
Supplementary material is in short supply: Other than startup promos for "Monk", "Saturday Night Live" (The Complete First Season), "The Office", HD-DVD, and Let's Go to Prison, the disc includes two Herzog/Cowen featurettes, "Commander in Chief: Making of Man of the Year" (13 mins.) and "Robin Williams: Stand Up Guy" (9 mins.)--gratuitous love-ins for writer-director Barry Levinson and Williams, respectively. I suppose it's a minor virtue that neither piece is particularly flashy, which is to say that the interviewees occasionally have a chance to venture beyond calculated soundbites or, in the case of Williams and fellow comic Lewis Black, glib one-liners. (Black in fact fruitfully retraces the film's lineage back to Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd.) Levinson, alas, is given just enough rope to hang himself, coming across as at worst vacuous and at best wishy-washy in the Trey Parker-Matt Stone mold by regurgitating much of the same non-partisan (or anti-partisan) rhetoric that pours out of Tom Dobbs's mouth in Man of the Year. FYI, Tina Fey's "Weekend Update" outtakes in the Robin Williams tribute best anything Williams hurls at literally captive audiences during his predicted bouts of verbal diarrhea therein. Originally published: February 19, 2007.
*also available in fullscreen