'The perception of legitimacy is more important than legitimacy itself.' Jack Menken, "Man of the Year"
Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams, "Good Morning, Vietnam," "RV") is a comedic talk show host whose audience gives him the unlikely idea of running for President. Is it a genuine desire to serve? Vanity? Audience demand? His perplexed manager wonders these very things, astonished to hear his client's announcement to run, yet he throws himself into Dobbs campaign like a pit bull. Things look amazingly promising for the independent candidate until a young woman, Eleanor Green (Laura Linney, "Kinsey"), comes to Tom with some disturbing news about Delacroix Systems, the company whose software runs the voting booths. The surprising way Dobbs handles his dilemma lands him on Time's cover as "Man of the Year."
Writer/director Barry Levinson ("Wag the Dog") shows a return to something like form after this decade's misses "Everlasting Piece" and "Envy" and the odd but OK "Bandits." Levinson's no stranger to political satire, his "Wag the Dog," a contemporary of Clinton's sex scandal and commentary on White House media manipulation, but while "Man of the Year" certainly gets the current climate of movie star Governors and comedian news readers, it is rendered a bit toothless by its broad liberal presentation of issues, a kind of 'We're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it anymore!' generic rant, and the vague definition of Dobbs' opponents. Still, it is a pleasure to see a Williams performance that combines the best of his dramatic restraint with his extraordinary comic chops.
Dobbs' tale is relayed in flashback from his manager, Jack Menken's (Christopher Walken, ""Click") point of view, "Citizen Kane" style while Eleanor's parallel story, combination thriller and romance, is from her own perspective. Eleanor is a workaholic who confides in friend Danny (David Alpay, "Ararat") when she finds that her software testing consistently shows the President winning the election no matter how she skews her data, but when she emails her findings to the firm's owner, Hemmings (Rick Roberts), he conveniently deletes her message. Meanwhile Dobbs is frustrating his team by playing it straight, working the issues but telling no jokes. They're joyous, though, at the news that he will be allowed to debate and it is there that Dobbs finally cuts loose, running rampant over the broadcasts rules and the other two candidates. Dobbs' irreverence - Williams is hilarious in a full disclosure montage with the press where he admits to inhaling, looking at dirty pictures of nude women and having just farted - continues to dominate the media and when he starts to take the lead on election night, it is not as far fetched as it might seem.
Eleanor, though, doubts the results. As Delacroix employees party, she uses the occasion to approach Hemmings in person and is threatened by his legal council, Stewart (Jeff Goldblum, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"). That night, she hears noises in her home and is jumped by a masked figure who pumps her full of drugs. The next day at work it's meltdown time and she's fired in a smear campaign that leaves everyone believing she's crazy and a drug abuser. Everyone, that is, except President Elect Tom Dobbs.
After the legitimacy of the results of two presidential elections have been questioned, "Man of the Year" is well positioned to get people talking about computerized polling systems (for a good overview on the subject, I highly recommend the April 2004 Vanity Fair article “Hack the Vote,” by Michael Shnayerson). Levinson certainly gets that subject out front and center and does a good job balancing the different aspects of his film. The cast also gel nicely, even with Dobbs' team shouldering more comedy while Linney's story is more thriller oriented. The romantic attachment between the two sides is a solid bridging device. Williams is possibly a little too low key, but it makes him more believable as a candidate and his gentle demeanor provides a calming tone for Linney's paranoia. Walken, whose character suffers a serious health threat during the film, is a good foil for Williams and Lewis Black (Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," "Accepted") snaps as speech writer Eddie Langston. Rick Roberts is a shadowy villain and Jeff Goldblum is a sinister henchman. Surprise cameos come from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler playing themselves as SNL Weekend Update anchors.
"Man of the Year" isn't as biting as "Wag the Dog" was, nor as prescient, but it throws an issue into the ring as it entertains its audience.
Robin did not see this film.
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