Saturday, October 14, 2006

Reel To Reel: Man Of The Year

Politics is no laughing matter -- unless you're the electorate.

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Robin Williams, Laura Linney, Christopher Walken
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language, Sex Jokes

A survey raises the alarming possibility more young people get their news from The Daily Show than the networks. Jon Stewart goes on Crossfire, says it's hurting America, and the CNN political shoutfest fades away. Somebody suggests Stewart should even appear as a network commentator. Stewart has to remind people, hey, I'm a comedian.

Man Of The Year opens in a political climate ripe for caustic parody, yet it fails to cut deep. Robin Williams, playing Stewart-esque jokester Tom Dobbs, delivers plenty of stand-up barbs at lobbyist-driven politics and Washington hypocrisy, but only some of them seem fresh or topical. At times, it comes off like a litany for the perpetually angry voter or third-party candidate, shaking things up a little but failing to move out of its comfort zone. It's as if political consultants, the same ones Dobbs attacks, are writing the picture.

Dobbs announces he's running for president as an independent on his rendition of the Daily Show. We're not really sure why -- is it the publicity, or does Dobbs truly want to reform politics? Whatever the reason, Dobbs takes his candidacy seriously, crisscrossing the country giving stump speeches. His manager Jack (Walken), more Obi-Wan Kenobe than Karl Rove, frets about the whole thing. Candidate Dobbs is too serious, not the Dobbs people laugh at on television -- until he's invited to participate in the final presidential debate, moderated by real-life TV anchor Faith Daniels. Dobbs gets rolling, and rips apart a stodgy debate.

During these final miles on the road to the White House, democracy is about to hit a major pothole. Several states have implemented touch-screen voting machines which contain a serious software flaw (sound familiar?) spotted by company technician Eleanor Green (Linney), but her warnings go ignored by company brass more concerned about their stock price than integrity. On election night, that flaw powers Dobbs into the winner's circle.

Here is where the movie should go into overdrive and show us the impact on America. I expect to see backrooms of Republicans and Democrats gasping and sweating, shots of TV commentators moaning about the future of the nation in a post-9/11 world, man-on-the-street interviews of people saying everything from "cool" to "when's the next flight to Canada?" I want to see Dobbs pick a cabinet, negotiate trade agreements, and deliver a State of the Union address. I wonder what Osama bin Laden would say in his next tape. I wonder what the world community would say. I want to see him talk about the War on Terror, and I want to see him being told about "the football" -- the missile launch codes.

His election should send an 8.5 earthquake through Washington, but it barely moves the seismograph. Even Dobbs making a speech to Congress dressed as Thomas Jefferson -- in an 18th-Century powdered wig and breeches (where's the tricorn?) -- doesn't generate any noticeable fallout, anybody nervous we're about to inaugurate this guy. And we haven't even touched the ultimate whopper -- the fact Dobbs' election was a fraud in the first place.

Instead, Man Of The Year goes down the route of political thriller, with Green trying to tell Dobbs the truth and her bosses trying to stop her. One scene where Green confronts the bigwigs is memorable for both their response and the scene's incongruity with the rest of the picture. The film almost wants to morph into The Manchurian Candidate or The Pelican Brief, and that only undercuts it more.

Man Of The Year misses so many opportunities, you want to write about it like a political obituary, the story of a candidate who ran and lost. Williams' performance is no loser, saving the picture from collapse. But the rest of it isn't trying to win, or even shock us. I wonder what director Oliver Stone (or post-humously, Stanley Kubrick) would have done with this material instead of Barry Levinson. You have all the elements here for a classic nightmare black comedy in the vein of Dr. Strangelove, and the picture refuses to go there, staying "on message," just like the handlers advise.

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