Movie Review: "Man of the Year"

4 Stars

Directed by Barry Levinson
Universal Pictures

Political films are like slots on a roulette wheel. They come in all different kinds, but even an veteran moviegoer is hard-pressed to pick a sure-fire winner.

If you feel like you gambled and lost on Stephen Zallian’s flaccid reimagining of “All the King’s Men,” cheer up. Hollywood, in rare form, has sent you a consolation prize.

It comes in the form of Barry Levinson’s much-touted “Man of the Year.” Levinson’s direction is only mediocre and his screenplay is filmsy, but the movie works anyway.

The lynchpin of the film’s success is, unsurprisingly, Robin Williams, who flexes his satirical and dramatic muscles as Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-ish TV personality who decides to run for president.

On the campaign trail, Williams has some help from manager Jack Menken (Christopher Walken) and joke-turned-speech writer Eddie Langston (acerbic standup comic Lewis Black), who, despite their pitch-perfect performances largely sing backup to their leading man.

But unlike his other comic outings, in “Man of the Year,” Williams doesn’t come across as a prima donna. He’s surprisingly restrained, coolly cracking jokes with finesse.

I would give credit to Levinson for the film’s humor, but Williams probably improvised half of the jokes anyway.

As in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” the classic Levinson-Williams collaboration from 1987, Levinson’s real achievement is his excellent use of this omni-talented actor/comedian, whose dramatic skills are severely underrated.

Yeah, everyone’s seen “Good Will Hunting,” but who’s seen “One Hour Photo” or “The Night Listener?” When it comes to “real” acting, Williams knows what he’s doing, but often gets over-written roles.

“Man of the Year” showcases Williams’ dramatic skills without sacrificing his trademark improvisational, irreverent humor.

And I don’t mean that he does one token dramatic scene and then launches back into fart jokes. Tom Dobbs goes the whole nine yards, brooding over love, death, and morality.

Describing “Man of the Year” in terms of other filmmakers doesn’t do justice to Levinson’s intelligent interweaving of a political commentary into the comedic fabric of his film. This is political satire of the highest order.

He mercifully dispenses with the usual “Bush is bad” tripe and instead discusses the general condition of politics in the U.S.

Often, Williams becomes the mouthpiece for Levinson’s disgust, as in a presidential debate scene where Dobbs dispenses with the rules and rants for several minutes about how politicos never deliver substantive messages. Yet, despite the anger and exasperation behind his words (and the laughs that result), Williams almost never lets himself drift into his typical loud, acerbic humor.

Williams’ performance is so restrained that it almost seems out of character for him to be in character.

The audience at the screening I attended lurched forwards in their seats at any sign of Williams’ return to his typical boisterous demeanor, their laughs laden with anticipation. It’s as if they expected him to turn to them and roar, “GOOD MORNING, USA!”

The success of Tom Dobbs’ presidential bid—complicated by an unfortunate, perfunctory conspiracy/romance plot featuring the appealing but ineffectual Laura Linney as a programmer for an electronic voting corporation—seems to represent the failed promise of intellectual standouts like Howard Dean and Gavin Newsom.

Christopher Walken’s character explains why the American public is embracing a fake newsman divorcee: “He sounds different. That’s why they can hear him.”

Bottom Line: Hilarious. Insightful. Robin Williams. What more do you want?

­—Reviewer Kyle L. K. McAuley can be reached at kmcauley@fas.harvard.edu.