Lest anyone forget, writer/director Barry Levinson’s last movie “Envy” centered on a fictional aerosol spray designed to effect the immediate disappearance of human and animal excrement. Alas, it’s unlikely that even the heaviest dose of Vapoorize could do the same favor for Levinson’s newest film, “Man of the Year.”
One of the highest (and most overused) compliments that can be paid to a movie these days is that it “isn’t afraid to raise some interesting questions.” This platitude suggests that so long as the subject matter is somewhat relevant and somewhat controversial, the film will be a guaranteed success. By that criterion, “Man of the Year” seems promising enough: A movie about a comedian who runs for President is bound to raise eyebrows — especially when Jon Stewart is a household name. But the problem is that “Man of the Year” isn’t brave, and it isn’t all that interesting. In fact, one could even argue that beneath all its bluster, the film doesn’t raise a single question at all.
Within the first 30 minutes, the film’s initial premise is almost entirely squandered. Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a fake news talk show host whose shtick is startlingly similar to that of, well, Robin Williams. Spouting a crudely defined populism, making vague references to “special interest groups” and winning the support of Internet pundits, Dobbs announces his candidacy for president of the United States less than ten minutes into the film. He then drags his handlers — played by Lewis Black and Christopher Walken — onto the campaign trail, where he manages to win a spot in the presidential debate.
The notion of a comedian running for President carries far less shock value on the screen than it does on paper, mostly because “Man of the Year” makes such little effort to acquaint the audience with Dobbs as a comedian and even less of an effort to acquaint them with the fictional America in which he is campaigning. Dobbs complains constantly of “special interest groups” and urges a frank discussion of “the issues,” but exactly what those issues are is never clear. “Man of the Year” assumes that viewers will simply fill in the blanks themselves: Big oil companies are bad, political parties are corrupt and Robin Williams’ character is a likeable goofball because Robin Williams always plays likeable goofballs.
But Dobbs grows more obnoxious and less likeable as time goes by. When Dobbs steps down from the lectern during a televised debate and interrupts his befuddled opponents with a discursive rant against the status quo, he isn’t socking it to the Man so much as cracking bad jokes under a masquerade of moral indignation. Williams’ voice oscillates between the customary hisses and growls, while Walken’s character watches the broadcast and delivers lines — “Stick it to ’em, baby,” and “Smack down!” — that seem to have been written for Walken to do an impression of an impression of himself.
When Dobbs ends up winning the presidential election, it seems as though the movie has managed to strike an ingenious and satirical note: Imagine if there really were enough anti-establishment sentiment among American voters to usher a comedian into the highest office in the land. But the opportunity for genuine satire is thrown out the window when the audience receives the next revelation: Dobbs hasn’t won the Presidency after all. In fact, his victory is the result of a computer glitch in the country’s new electronic voting system. So, most of the country hasn’t voted for a comedian, and the entire first half of the film is rendered completely pointless.
From this point, “Man of the Year” loses what little coherence it had to begin with. The only person who knows of this glitch is a hapless lower-level programmer named Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) who works for Delacroy, the company responsible for the voting system. When she threatens to reveal the “glitch” — in itself a truly inane bit of movie fantasy — her profit-coveting employers come after her with a vengeance. Not since “South Park” brought us “Something Wal-Mart This Way Comes” has there been such a ridiculous, baldly exaggerated piece of anti-corporate mythology — and South Park’s episode was meant to parody that mythology. In “Man of the Year,” nobody is so unremittingly evil as Delacroy, as demonstrated by a drugging and several laughable attempts to rub Green out.
So what begins as an exercise in moral self-gratification devolves into mere farce in the span of barely two hours. Somewhere out there, there’s probably a film to be made that can offer an intelligent commentary on the American electoral system. But this sure isn’t it.