Man of the Year (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Talk about a movie with an identity problem! Man of the Year doesn't know what it wants to be and, because of this indecision calls to mind a well-worn phrase: "Jack of all trades, master of none." The film contains elements of a comedy, a thriller, a political satire, and a romance, but all are given short shrift. The result, which comes complete with one of movie-dom's most egregious product placements and a preachy finale that sticks like peanut butter in the craw, will leave many viewers walking down the exit aisles with a vague sense of dissatisfaction.

In a few years, we may be remarking about the prescience of Man of the Year's premise, just as people are now looking at an off-hand remark about "President Schwarzenegger" in Demolition Man as being clairvoyant. Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) is a political comedian who ends up being "drafted" by an Internet petition into running for President. His name shows up on ballots in 13 states, but no one thinks that he, as an independent, stands a chance against the Democrat and Republican candidates, both of whom have deep pockets. Dobbs elects not to buy commercials and galvanizes the public via an energetic performance at a nationally televised debate. Come Election Day, the unthinkable happens, and Dobbs becomes President Elect… or does he?

It seems there may be a flaw in the vote tabulating system developed by Delacroy Systems. Working late one night, Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), uncovers this error and brings it to the attention of the CEO, Hemmings (Rick Roberts) and his right-hand man, Stewart (Jeff Goldblum). With billions of dollars riding on the success of the system, they ignore the memo and begin a smear campaign against Eleanor so if she goes public, everyone will believe her comments to be the ramblings of a bitter drug addict. However, Eleanor aims higher than Hemmings and Stewart expect - she bypasses the media and goes directly to Dobbs.

For roughly the first hour, Man of the Year is a smart, cynical look at everything that's wrong in American politics today: cookie-cutter candidates (can't tell the difference between the Democrat and Republican?), special interest groups, speeches with no content, voter apathy. (The film does not engage in either Republican or Democrat-bashing. Both are treated with equal disdain.) Dobbs represents an opportunity for change, a chance to clean up Washington and re-boot the system. The problem is, he didn't really win, so the ethical dilemma is whether it's better for him to take the Presidency although he was not rightfully elected or hand it over to the lesser man who was the legitimate winner. Sadly, the conundrum is resolved in a disappointing and facile manner.

The movie's second half represents a series of let-downs. Politics takes a back seat to romantic and mystery-thriller elements. Wag the Dog gives way to The American President doped with 24. The movie is as uneven as the career of its director, Barry Levinson. Levinson has made some cinematic dogs to stand alongside his great movies. On his resume, there's a Sphere for every Wag the Dog and an Envy for every Good Morning Vietnam. Man of the Year encapsulates Levinson's strengths and weaknesses together in one messy 115-minute package.

The Saturday Night Live product placement is equally annoying and gratuitous. (It's made anachronistic by the presence of Tina Fey, who has since jumped ship.) No surprise that the movie was released by Universal Studios, better known as NBC-Universal, the owner of SNL. I wonder what we would have gotten had Fox made Man of the Year. Is Lorne Michaels this desperate?

When reined in, Robin Williams is effective as Dobbs, but there are occasions when he adopts his usual comic persona and we lose sight of the character. It doesn't happen often, but even once is enough to interrupt the movie's uncertain flow. In addition to Williams, Christopher Walken (as Dobbs' manager) and Eddie Langston are around to provide laughs. The other stars - Laura Linney, Rick Roberts, and Jeff Goldblum - are straight "men." The script is especially rough on Linney, who never seems comfortable sharing scenes with Williams.

Man of the Year rightly senses that the climate is ripe for fusing politics and comedy. Stewart, Colbert, and others do this on a regular basis. (Move over, Mark Russell, you've been supplanted.) For 60 minutes, the movie appears to have found the right tone and approach, then everything goes wrong. It's rare to see a production that starts so strongly finish so weakly. Man of the Year makes telling points and has a lot to say, but it loses its voice along with its consistency around the mid-way point, and that will likely make it an also-ran in the box office race.

Man of the Year (United States, 2006)

Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Robin Williams, Christopher Walken, Laura Linney, Lewis Black, Jeff Goldblum, David Alpay, Rick Roberts
Screenplay: Barry Levinson
Cinematography: Dick Pope
Music: Graeme Revell
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2006-10-13
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1