Man Of The Year
During a 29-day delay in the filming of his awful big-budget feature Sphere in 1997, Baltimore native son Barry Levinson dashed off Wag the Dog, one of the sharpest, funniest political satires ever filmed. The picture took a what-if premise and pushed it as far as it would go: What if a scandal-besieged president staged a totally fictitious war to distract the American public?
Now Levinson has directed another political satire, Man of the Year, with another what-if premise. What if the host of a cable-TV political comedy show--a man very much like Jon Stewart--ran for president? This time, though, the movie is funny without being sharp, diverting rather than brilliant.
The difference is in the script. Scenarist David Mamet, who shared Dog credit with Hilary Henkin, created short, staccato dialogue so lean that its forward momentum couldnít be resisted. For Man, Levinson has written some very funny scenes but also some very slack passages, and the movie constantly speeds up and brakes like a car carrying a student driver sign.
You suspect that the funniest lines were improvised by star Robin Williams, who improvised much of his dialogue in Levinsonís Good Morning, Vietnam. Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a cable-TV star who declares his campaign for president as an elaborate show-biz stunt. But when his polling numbers get close to the Democratic incumbent and Republican challenger, Dobbs is invited to a televised debate. Disregarding the ground rules, he turns the debate into an improvised stand-up routine thatís very funny, appalling the political regulars but stimulating disaffected voters out in TV land.
Is that all it takes to win an election? The answer is complicated by another major plot strand: the contract won by the Delacroy corporation to install new touch-screen electronic voting machines in every American precinct. A company researcher, Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), discovers a glitch that distorts the vote totals. But when she tells corporate head counsel (a delightfully malevolent Jeff Goldblum), he pooh-poohs her concerns and then sics his thugs on her. She runs to Dobbs in hopes that he believes her.
Levinsonís theme of an honest outsider upsetting the political applecart has been old hat since Frank Capra. Much more interesting and current is the balky or manipulated voting machines, but Levinson never delivers a scene as memorable as Wag the Dogís fake Albanian battle and never pushes the issue very hard. He also fumbles the implausible romance between Green and Dobbs, failing to give it an ounce of credible chemistry.
On the other hand, Tomís banter boasts some witty one-liners. "Why do we need a same-sex marriage amendment?" he asks his debate opponents. "Anyone whoís ever been married knows itís always the same sex."