The biggest problem with Man of the Year is that, much like American Dreamz, which came out earlier this year, it simply doesn't seem to know what genre it aspires to be. It's not quite thrilling enough to be a political thriller, nor is it dark enough or funny enough to be a black comedy or political satire. My viewing partner at the screening the other night made the observation that it's almost as if somebody figured that Jon Stewart is hot, people aren't happy with our politicians (are we ever, really?) and that a film about a political humorist like Stewart running for and winning the presidency would get butts into seats.
Toss in little intrigue around a glitch in the spandy-new computerized voting system designed to replace the Era of the Dangling Chad, add Robin Williams, mix with some "serious" cred from Laura Linney, Christopher Walken, and Jeff Goldblum, and what's not to like? Unfortunately, a lot of interesting cinematic ingredients all tossed together don't always make for a delectable, filling meal, and such is the case with this tepid film. Here's what we have to work with: Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a political comedian and commentator with a show similar to Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. One day during a pre-show warm-up, a fan asks Dobbs why he doesn't run for president. The idea grows with Dobbs' fans and sticks in his own head, and next thing you know, he's announcing on the air (without even warning his manager, Jack Menken, played by Walken) of his plans. Widespread grass-roots support soon finds Dobbs on the ballot in 17 states, and before you can say "Ross Perot," Dobbs is a legitimate independent candidate for President of the United States of America.
Dobbs wants to be taken seriously, so he does a couple of radical things: First, he refuses to spend a single penny on campaign ads, because he wants to be the only candidate not beholden to special interest groups and lobbyists; second, he jettisons the comedic routine that his fans love because he doesn't want his candidacy to be seen as a joke. Although his staff of writers (headed up by Lewis Black) and his manager harp at him nonstop to bring the laughs back into his political speeches, the strategy works well enough to secure Dobbs a spot in the last televised presidential debate.
While all this is going on, we have a side story about Delacroy, the company that won a government bid to create a unified computerized election program in the wake of widespread citizen concern about the legitimacy of our voting system. Delacroy has created a fool-proof, easy-to-use, touchscreen voting system that will virtually guarantee the election goes off without a hitch. Well, all except for that minor little bug (in the software biz, we used to call those "undocumented features") that mysteriously skews the election results. Ace computer expert Eleanor Green (Linney), who headed up the project, discovers this fairly significant error just days before the election. Nevermind that when you're developing software thats supposed to determine the next leader of the free world, you might think that a company would have run many thousands of hours of simulated elections just like the one Eleanor discovers the glitch with. But hey, if she discovered the bug in time for them to actually fix it, well, we wouldn't have about half the movie. That might have been a good thing, actually.
Eleanor, being the diligent software geek and good citizen that she is, naturally reports the possibility of a bug to her boss, company president Hemmings (Rick Roberts). This being the age of corruption in big business (okay, there's always been corruption in big business, but play along here, just for kicks), Hemmings emails Eleanor back that the problem she describes is a "known bug" that's been fixed, and the error is limited to her computer. Here's where the software geeks in the crowd started to get restless and whisper amongst themselves. No software developer worth his or her salt would buy this for a minute; first of all, as the head developer on the project, Eleanor would have been the one person in the company who would have known if there were any bugs like that (and when it's revealed later in the film what's causing the bug, it makes it even less plausible that it wouldn't have been discovered way, way earlier).
But setting that aside, and assuming this is really the first time she's run across this bug, the next thing any reasonably intelligent person in her position would do would be to duplicate the results on several other systems to confirm that it's not just her machine. And if she was smart and really conscientious, and a little concerned about the CEO of the company blowing off a major bug in the software that's supposed to run the country's election, she'd document her results and save copies of everything in a safe deposit box, just in case, you know, someone higher up in the company was corrupt and had sinister ideas about how to deal with whistle-blowers.
The rest of the movie is pretty much a mess, as Dobbs shocks the nation by winning the presidency (thanks to the computer error, natch), and Eleanor seeks to right the wrong, while evil corporate attorney Alan Stewart (Goldblum) uses nefarious means to stop her from spilling the beans to Dobbs. Yes, yes, if you were in Eleanor's position, rather than trying to get past Secret Service to the president-elect to convince him he didn't really win the election, you might take that evidence you'd hidden in that safe deposit box and go to, say, the Washington Post or New York Times. But that wouldn't be any fun, would it?
One thing I found interesting about this film is that, while I individually more-or-less enjoyed both Williams' and Linney's performances, I found the casting of them opposite each other to be rather an odd mix. On the one hand you have the hyperactive, manic energy of Williams, and on the other you have the cool, intellectual, serious acting of Linney. Williams is certainly capable of playing serious, as he did most recently in The Night Listener, and when he does that, he can do it very well. What we have here, though, is more of the "Patch Adams" Williams -- that oil-and-water mix of comedy and seriousness (although, thankfully lacking, for the most part, the sappiness and sentimentality of Patch Adams). Williams does have a few funny moments (and you've seen most of them in the trailer already). In particular, when Dobbs goes off on the other candidates in the debate, we see Williams at his comedic best: Funny, but without being so over-the-top that he makes your brain ache.
Linney turns in her usual solid performance, and Walken gets to throw in a couple of patented Christopher Walken Speeches, but it's just not enough to save the film. The writing feels like it needed another couple of rewrites and a serious polish; there is too much in the script that just feels contrived. Goldblum has an absolutely dreadful speech when he verbally attacks Eleanor for daring to point out to Hemming that the real election results are showing the exact same glitch of numbers that her simulation showed. I'm very glad to see Goldblum showing up in more good roles lately, even if his tan looks like he's been spending too much time at the George Hamilton Tanning Salon, and it was actually good to see him playing an evil bad guy, but the part was so sloppily written that when he was giving that speech in particular, I just cringed for him. Black is basically coasting here, just playing himself, and he has a couple of speeches that seem like they were tossed in there just to give him a chance to do his ranting routine.
This film might have been a solid political thriller, if the focus had been kept on the corporate baddies trying to stop Eleanor at all costs, and if you ever felt like she was in real peril, and if the pacing was tighter. It would have been better still as a really good political satire, which it might have been had the writing been a lot sharper. Perhaps writer/director Barry Levinson, rather than writing the script himself, should have tapped Hilary Henkin and David Mamet, who scripted the much better film Wag the Dog, to write the script for him. Mamet could have worked magic with the dialogue, and crafted a really sharp film. As it is, Man of the Year isn't nearly as funny as you think it's going to be -- it's being marketed as a comedy, but a lot of Williams' material feels stale, and the laughs were pretty few and far between from the packed house audience with whom I saw the film. The thriller angle takes away from what could have potentially been a good political satire, leaving us with a sense of a lot of talent being wasted on a film that, because it tries too hard to be two from different genres, falls short on both counts.