Man of the Year

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“Man of the Year” is about a very funny late-night comedian who runs for president. He gains support because his hilarious jokes cut right to the heart of the matter and eliminate the B.S. that is most politicians’ stock in trade.

The fundamental problem with the film is that, notwithstanding the multiple shots of his staff and friends gazing at him admiringly as they chuckle at his wit, the comedian in question is not funny. The people within the movie think he is, but almost every example of his humor that is shown to us is lame and toothless. It’s hard enough to believe that ANY comedian could be elected president, much less that THIS one could.

His name is Tom Dobbs, and he hosts a TV show that is obviously meant to be “The Daily Show” (though “The Daily Show” exists in this universe, too). He runs for president on a whim after mentioning the idea casually and being flooded with millions of e-mails pledging support for the idea. He campaigns on the platform that lobbyists and partisan squabbling are bad for America — a position so bland and obvious that no one in the movie audience could possible disagree with it, yet one that inspires tremendous passion among the fictional American populace of the film.

Dobbs is played by Robin Williams. He’s an old favorite of Barry Levinson, who wrote and directed the film, having previously appeared in Levinson’s “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Toys.” But let’s face it: “Toys” was a wreck and “Good Morning, Vietnam” was 19 years ago. Robin Williams has not been consistently funny in more than a decade, and he’s NEVER been the kind of funny that “Man of the Year” wants him to be. Williams is frenetic, hyper, free-associating and improvisational. In contrast, the Jon Stewart type he’s representing is intellectual, mild-mannered and insightful. The reason people talk about drafting Stewart to run for president in real life is that dressed in a suit, sitting behind a desk and delivering political-themed speeches, Stewart already seems presidential. Williams simply doesn’t fit that mold.

It doesn’t help that while Levinson wrote the script, he let Williams ad-lib his own material, all of which is old, shticky and banal. There are jokes in here that I remember him telling on Letterman 15 years ago. There’s a joke about NASA spending $28 million on a pen that would write upside-down when the Russians spent 5 cents and just used pencils — and that one’s been circulating around the Internet as an urban legend for as long as there’s been an Internet. And this guy’s supposed to be the hip, cutting-edge late-night comedian? Please. This guy would get booed off the stage at Billy Giggles’ Chuckle Factory in Des Moines.

Williams is flanked by two co-stars who ARE funny, Lewis Black as his cantankerous producer and Christopher Walken as his agent. With Jeff Goldblum also on board as a duplicitous voting-machine company executive, we have a trifecta of Odd Talkers — actors whose delivery is so strange and stilted as to render nearly everything they say funny. Walken is the champ at this, of course, and his performance as Dobbs’ agent is typical Walken: zanily off-kilter and incredibly likable, each line spoken with unusual inflection and panache.

Aside from its inherent problem of having a non-funny main character, the film goes off the rails anyway when an employee at the voting-machine company, Eleanor (Laura Linney), suspects the election results were erroneous and Dobbs did not actually win. (His victory comes in the first half-hour and is in the trailers; I’m not giving anything away.) I can track the very instant I knew the film was beyond hope: Eleanor has a meltdown after being drugged by her bosses, who want her to keep quiet about what she knows, and this meltdown is not played for laughs. It’s made to seem serious and intense — exactly the wrong attitude for a supposedly sharp political comedy to be taking.

Sure enough, the second half turns into a potboiler political thriller, with Eleanor on the run, Dobbs unsure what to make of her claims, and the feeble grasp Levinson had on the concept of “comedy” quickly floating away.

Levinson directed the very astute “Wag the Dog” in 1997, though it’s worth noting it was written by the very astute David Mamet and did not contain any Robin Williams jokes from the mid-’80s. (Someone tells him he’s looking very tan and he says, “I went to the tanning salon, said I wanted to look like a Kennedy. I think they set it on George Hamilton.” Really, Robin? A George Hamilton joke? In 2006?) “Man of the Year” takes occasional stabs at satire but ultimately can’t muster anything worth paying attention to. It’s more Jay Leno than Jon Stewart, and there’s no way that’s a compliment.

C (1 hr., 55 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, one F-bomb, some vulgarity.)

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