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Man of the Year

A Comedy in Need of a Presidential Pardon

It’s an intriguing idea. What if someone like Jon Stewart, the clown prince of Comedy Central’s mock-news division, actually ran for office? (Better yet, make it Stephen Colbert.) Laugh if you must, but the timing couldn’t be better. Voters are tired of partisan posturing and slick, career politicians, and if opinion polls are any indication, there’s already a joker inhabiting the executive office. So what if a real comedian ran -- and won?

That’s the premise of Man of the Year, at least for a while, and it’s a promising one. Unfortunately, director Barry Levinson, whose career has been in a puzzling tailspin ever since 1999’s Liberty Heights, has no idea what to do with it. Apparently unwilling to commit himself to the idea of a biting political satire, the kind he attempted with some success in Wag the Dog, he lapses into cruise control, and the movie morphs into an overwrought political thriller.

Another problem is Levinson's choice of lead actors. Clearly, he is a big fan of Robin Williams, whom he cast in the far superior Good Morning, Vietnam. That was nearly 20 years ago, at a time when Williams was relatively fresh, even relevant. Today, he is neither. His manic delivery and hammy mannerisms, to which Dane Cook owes a great debt, seem more pathological than funny. When he dials himself back to mortal speed, Williams can be effective in almost any role. Here, he is allowed to cut loose just enough to induce mild indigestion.

Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a TV talking head much like Stewart or Colbert, only louder, zanier and less familiar with the concept of irony. At the suggestion of a fan, he decides to run for president, and after a successful debate, he wins. At this point, a dumbfounded Dobbs, his manager (Christopher Walken) and head writer ("Daily Show" regular Lewis Black) basically turn to each other and say, “Now what?”

Good question. If only Levinson had a compelling answer. Instead, he abandons a comically rich premise in favor of a dubious by-the-numbers alternative. Dobbs, it turns out, was mistakenly awarded the Oval Office by electronic voting machines infected with a glitch. When Eleanor (Laura Linney), a company employee, discovers this, she becomes a marked woman -- not because Dobbs is desperately attached to the presidency (he isn’t), but because the machine manufacturers stand to lose millions if their secret gets out. The rest of the movie involves Eleanor’s struggle to survive, and her budding involvement with Dobbs.

If that sounds like a scathing send-up of big business with a touching romantic twist, it’s not -- it’s a cop-out imposed on a movie that could have gone in so many different directions. To the detriment of Man of the Year, Levinson opts for the least imaginative. The only good news is that Williams doesn’t wear that ill-advised Thomas Jefferson get-up, featured way too prominently in the movie’s trailers, for very long.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars