Like today’s fractious, fragmented state of the union, Barry Levinson’s “Man of the Year” is a curious hybrid — a political/action/comedy/thriller in which Robin Williams becomes president of the United States. A movie as uneven as it sounds, “Man” is less laugh-out-loud funny than topical and suspenseful, but pic could be achieve a modest B.O. vote.
Computer wonk Eleanor Green (Laura Linney in tour de force perf) knows her company’s new electronic voting machine has a glitch, one that might skew the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. Her boss, Hemmings (Rick Roberts), poohs-poohs her doubts, but secretly panics; his evil lieutenant Stewart (Jeff Goldblum) plots to have Eleanor attacked and injected with a cocktail of recreational drugs, so she will lose all her credibility and won’t be able to harm the company, Delacroy Voting Systems.
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Delacroy couldn’t care less who wins the presidential election, however, as long as its stock price stays secure. So, when Tom Dobbs (Williams), a Jon Stewart-inspired talkshow host and political gadfly, wins a three-way race for the White House, the company is very happy to let him sit in the president’s chair.
“A perception of legitimacy is more important than legitimacy itself,” Stewart tells the troubled Eleanor.
What becomes the moral dilemma of the movie, though, is whether the country is better off letting Tom keep the job of president — he’s obviously the most decent and well-intentioned candidate — or not.
“Man of the Year” is a fruity member on the family tree of “Meet John Doe,” “Dave” and any number of other populist political fantasies, but Levinson also critiques current events, the media and the political system itself. Sometimes this is done pointedly, sometimes offhandedly: The appearance of Chris Matthews, Catherine Cryer and James Carville, playing TV pundits, makes one wonder if news people are at all concerned about their own credibility.
Christopher Walken is terrific as Tom’s manager, Jack Menken, and Lewis Black, who ratchets down his usually manic delivery on “The Daily Show,” is utterly convincing and very funny as Dobbsian operative Eddie Langston.
Unfortunately, Williams is not particularly funny, and, as if to compensate, Levinson and editors Steven Weisberg and Blair Daily cut to reaction shots each time Tom cracks a joke.
Williams comes off too stiff for a performer who has achieved such widespread popularity. His lines aren’t particularly fresh or crisply delivered and his manner is, well, mannered. Although much is made of his bachelorhood during the early campaign part of the pic so that one assumes he must be gay, later he falls for Eleanor — which is the smartest thing he does in the movie.
The best scenes are between Linney and Williams; she raises his game, and his often mawkish sincerity suddenly becomes perfectly natural.
While there are many implausibilities in “Man of the Year,” pic eventually overcomes an awkward start and turns into a satisfying candidate for the disposable movie dollar with a story that stays on your mind.