'Man of the Year' Is Politics as Usual

Robin Williams in 'Man of the Year'

Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a comedian-turned-presidential-candidate in Barry Levinson's Man of the Year. Universal Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Universal Pictures

Since the election of Ronald Reagan, we've established that an actor can become president. But how might a comedian fare? If the new movie Man of the Year is anything to go on, the campaign might be less amusing than you'd imagine.

Here's the setup: A late-night comic with a fake-news show decides to run for president, and to the dismay of his campaign team, tries to do it without telling jokes. The court jester wants to be taken seriously.

I'm not sure I believe that a successful comedian would be so clueless about his appeal, but let's say he is, just for the sake of the movie's best scene — in which the candidate, played by Robin Williams, changes his mind about being serious in the middle of a televised debate, and more or less turns it into a standup comedy slam.

The sequence gives the audience exactly what they came for: Robin Williams being Robin Williams. But after the debate, the joke is on the movie audience, because just as the candidate changes his mind and goes for funny, director Barry Levinson changes his, and turns the picture into a thriller about corporate whistle-blowing. Something about a computer glitch that threatens the stock price of a voting-machine company. Do we care? No, at least not as much as we do about a prankster leading the free world.

Part of the problem, clearly, is expectations, set up by both the ads, which feature Robin Williams in a powdered wig, and by the fact that Levinson made a much smarter political comedy a decade ago called Wag the Dog. That one also was constructed as a thriller, but it didn't star a comedian, and it didn't spring from what is essentially a pretty old joke.

Real comedians have run for president — Pat Paulsen did it back in 1968, and he was copying Gracie Allen, who ran in 1940 as the "Surprise Party" candidate. Yes, the popularity of Jon Stewart gives the notion a new hook, but the movie's shtick isn't nearly as edgy as The Daily Show's. At one point, Williams actually cracks jokes about flipping through the IKEA catalog for his cabinet.

It's all very bland and safe, as if the filmmakers are determined to make their Man of the Year appeal to red-staters and blue-staters alike. In other words, politics-as-usual, and less than thrilling, whether you're courting laughs or courting votes.

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