This film probably would have been better off waiting until this year to see the light of day. Not only is this film more appropriate to a time when the list of people not running for President is almost shorter than the list of people running, but it would have given writer and director Barry Levinson an extra year to decide exactly what film he wanted to make and actually get it right.
As it is, Man of the Year has more personalities than Sybil. Is it a Robin Williams comedy, a barbed satire on the American public’s disaffection with politics or a thriller about an attempted to rig a presidential election? Unfortunately, it manages to fall short as all three fronts.
For the first half of the movie, when it seems to be coming down on the side of political satire, it seems to be working. Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, who is basically Robin Williams with Jon Stewart’s job. His political comedy leads an audience member to ask if he’d ever run for President himself. When this idea is repeatedly greeted with great enthusiasm, Dobbs gives in and declares his candidacy, much to the alarm of his manager (Christopher Walken) and producer (Lewis Black), who become his campaign staff.
At first, Dobbs tries too hard to be taken seriously and finds no one is paying attention, and then he realizes that he can score more points using his natural weapon, comedy. Despite making gains in the polls, everyone, including Dobbs, is stunned when the comedian is elected President.
The other part of the story, a techno-thriller about a Diebold-like company with the national franchise on electronic voting, and an employee (Laura Linney) who discovers the flaw in the program that allowed Dobbs to get elected. This whole sub-plot seems awkwardly grafted onto the story, as if someone realized that the Tom Dobbs story wasn’t enough to fill two hours and they needed to do something about it. As it is, filmmaker Levinson had to resort to a clumsy narrative device to introduce Laura Linney’s character and the electronic voting angle at the beginning of the movie. Otherwise, the whole thing would have cropped up at the half-way mark and the whole audience would be left asking, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Who the hell is this chick?”
Frankly, both subjects are probably worth exploring in their own movies, but the film would have been better off sticking with one of them. Frankly, I think a story exploring the idea of a comedian becoming President and the ramifications would have stood up well on its own. The thriller plot wasn’t just half-baked; they hadn’t even bothered to take the dough out of the little cardboard Pillsbury sleeve. There may be a good movie in this subject, but this ain’t it.
Man of the Year does feature a reasonably multi-layered performance by Robin Williams in a role that makes decent use of his gifts for stand-up comedy. Christopher Walken is his usual quirky self, but the role allows him a little extra headroom to stretch his talents a bit. Laura Linney, however, looks perpetually uncomfortable throughout the movie, as if she were simultaneously undergoing an IRS audit and a root canal when she wasn’t filming.
Given the pedigree of talent behind the film, it’s disappointing the Man of the Year can’t make more out of an intriguing premise. Chalk this one up as a wasted opportunity.