A sort of political "This Is Spinal Tap,""Bob Roberts" is both a stimulating social satire and, for thinking people, a depressing commentary on the devolution of the American political system. Caustic docudrama about a wealthy crypto-fascist folk singer who runs for the U.S. Senate displays the impressive multiple talents of Tim Robbins as director, writer, actor, singer and songwriter.

A sort of political “This Is Spinal Tap,””Bob Roberts” is both a stimulating social satire and, for thinking people, a depressing commentary on the devolution of the American political system. Caustic docudrama about a wealthy crypto-fascist folk singer who runs for the U.S. Senate displays the impressive multiple talents of Tim Robbins as director, writer, actor, singer and songwriter. Unusual distribution collaboration of Paramount and Miramax guarantees that plenty of muscle will be put behind the domestic release, and paralleling of the actual fall election campaign is another plus. But film’s form and content both mitigate against more than moderate B.O. breakout.

Despite its fresh observations, pic has plenty of antecedents, from “A Face in the Crowd” and “Privilege” to “The Candidate” and “Tanner ’88.” Most of the points about the manipulation and idiocy of the media, the importance of superficial appearances and pious down-home values in elections, and government lies and conspiracies have been made before, but Robbins is relentless and uncompromising in pursuit of his ideas about the depths of cynicism, corruption and deceit involved in public life today.

Robbins plays a very plausible character, a self-assured, highly successful singer who attempts to ride his popularity into public office. Castigated as yuppie scum by his detractors, Roberts has secured his niche as an anti-1960s folk artist who blames the country’s ills on liberals and the social programs of the Great Society.

Roberts’ aim is to unseat longtime Pennsylvania Sen. Brickley Paiste. In a brilliant bit of casting, this man of refined sensibility and elegant reason is portrayed by Gore Vidal, and the fact that Vidal himself is known to stand for most of the values his opponent is attacking adds immeasurably to the angst of the situation.

Entire film is framed as a British TV documentary being prepared on Roberts’ campaign. Docu team not only charts Roberts’ progress in the weeks leading up to the 1990 election, being held against the backdrop of the Desert Shield buildup, but depicts the inane TV coverage of the race — including sexual slander of Sen. Paiste and charges brought against Roberts’ campaign adviser and former CIA operative Lukas Hart III (the always incisive Alan Rickman).

Dogging Roberts’ heels on the campaign trail is one Bugs Raplin, a disheveled black journalist for an underground rag called “Troubled Times.” Passionately yelling his allegations that Roberts’ fortune is tied up in drug money, funds siphoned from public housing projects, the savings-and-loan scandal and the like , Bugs is the kind of unpresentable kook the establishment can easily dismiss, but he ultimately becomes involved in Roberts’ political and personal fate in a surprising and tragic way.

Many of the absurd trappings of the campaign process are here — the sound bites, appearances at beauty pageants, empty slogans, twisted ideological meanings, mad schedules, technological overload, officious managers — as well as the unusual element of Roberts’ singing gigs. Tunes penned by David Robbins and Tim Robbins effectively convey the candidate’s reactionary attitudes, and latter performs them with easy authority.

At least for some viewers, one problem will be spending all this time with someone the filmmakers clearly intend to be loathsome and representative of an unsavory component in American politics. That the film so successfully states many truths about current conditions makes it a sorrowful spectacle indeed.

Another drawback is that the docu format–which is re-created somewhat erratically–exposes only public, rather than private, moments, resulting in a relatively one-dimensional experience, one that runs a bit long on that. While all the points are legitimate and sharply scored, most of them are relatively familiar, and there is an element of preaching to the converted that will make pic a favorite of liberals and a turn-off to others.

Still, political filmmaking in America is rare enough, so Robbins’ work is a very welcome addition to the landscape of a crazy, unpredictable election year. Although Roberts seems based on no recognizable politician, there are eerie reverberations of H. Ross Perot in multimillionaire Roberts’ self-financed campaign and self-characterization as a rebel outsider intent on shaking up Washington.

Robbins is spookily dead-on projecting the candidate’s bland confidence and homogenized middle-American personality. Since they aren’t playing full-blooded characters, performers down the line must quickly assert impressions, and most successfully do so.

Perhaps taking a cue form “The Player,” Robbins has cast a healthy number of w.k. thesps to enact cameos, most numerously as cute, superficial and dumb TV newscasters. Largest of these roles goes to Rickman, who is ferociously good in a part that mostly has him issuing heated denials of major misdeeds.

Technical team has created a kind of elevated TV look that doesn’t precisely match how TV docus look but creates a good enough impression.

Bob Roberts

(Political satire-docudrama--Color)

Production

A Paramount/Miramax release (U.S.) of a Polygram and Working Title production in association with Barry Levinson and Mark Johnson and Live Entertainment (Manifesto foreign sales). Produced by Forrest Murray. Executive producers, Ronna Wallace, Paul Webster, Tim Bevan. Directed, written by Tim Robbins.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Jean Lepine; editor, Lisa Churgin; music, David Robbins; songs, David Robbins, Tim Robbins; production design, Richard Hoover; art direction, Gary Kosko; set decoration, Brian Kasch; costume design, Bridget Kelly; sound (Dolby), Stephen Halbert; associate producers, James Bigwood, Allan Nicholls; casting, Douglas Aibel; L.A. casting, April Webster. Reviewed at the Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 12, 1992. Running time: 105 min.

With

Bob Roberts ... Tim Robbins Bugs Raplin ... Giancarlo Esposito Chet MacGregor ... Ray Wise Terry Manchester ... Brian Murray Senator Brickley Paiste ... Gore Vidal Delores Perrigrew ... Rebecca Jenkins Franklin Dockett ... Harry J. L ennix Clark Anderson ... John Ottavino Bart Macklerooney ... Robert Stanton Clarissa Flan ... Kelly Willis
Cameo appearances: John Cusack ("Cutting Edge" host), Peter Gallagher (Morning News anchor Dan Riley), Pamela Reed (news anchor Carol Cruise), Alan Rickman (Lukas Hart III), Susan Sarandon (news anchor Tawna Tilan), James Spader (news anchor Chuck Marlin), David Strathairn (Bugs' attorney Mack Laflin), Fred Ward (news anchor Chip Daley), Bob Balaban ("Cutting Edge" producer Michael Janes), Robert Hegyes (reporter Ernesto Galleano), Helen Hunt (hospital reporter Rose Pondell), Fisher Stevens (reporter Rock Bork).

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