Cinema Signal:
Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?:
Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count
by Steve Freeman

. "Man of the Year"

With a premise as thin as a republican congressman's ethical standards, writer-director Barry Levinson ("Wag the Dog," "Diner") has some fun lambasting the political process, political comedians, new age voting machines and the way powerful people tend to cover up their failures. In the hot seat, enjoying every minute of it, is Robin Williams bewigged... or not, toying with the bizarre notion that a grass roots movement could put someone like, say, for instance, Jon Stewart? in the oval office.

In an awkwardly gyrating first act, while comic Tom Dobbs (Williams) hosts his late-night talk show like, say, for instance, Jay Leno, turning his satiric invective to the upcoming election (fictional, of course) someone in the crowd comes up with the idea that Dobbs should run for the presidency as an independent since the standard bearers of the two primary parties present such an unsatisfactory choice. As the drumbeat for the wild notion increases throughout comedy TV land, and it begins to take on a life of its own, new digital voting machines are being touted by their manufacturer, Delacroy Voting Systems.

When modest software engineer Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) runs a test on the e-voting program she helped write, the discovery of a peculiar result seems like a sub-plot against the political whirlwind taking place outside her hotel room. But, this strain of the premise will be soon going on steroids.

With manager Jack Menken (Christopher Walken) at his side, along with a circle of light weights who comprise his management team and campaign regulars, Dobbs takes to the idea of running as though he was the one who thought of it. The problem seems to be conflicting notions about how to run. At first eschewing the idea of relying on comedy, he espouses his most serious political views on the spectrum of issues. Then, during a debate as a third candidate, he runs wild by taking it over with an outrageous co-opting of all rules.

As though this big moment has something to do with his eventual win, he readily accepts it along with the rest of the nation. About the only one putting it in question is that annoying Eleanor Green, who hasn't stopped insisting that a program glitch might have made Dobbs, a man with a double "b" in his name, president-elect. Suddenly, the whirlwind has become a mystery and her dowdy nerdishness is bringing out her former bosses' criminal tendencies.

As this dramatic dynamic takes hold, the movie takes on a focus it lacked in the early going. It holds your attention despite William's visible strain to make his part (and the notion of his attraction to the beleagured programmer) work as a basis for the humor, irony and jokes (which come off too often as cheap shots).

The "Man of the Year" is definitely not picture of the year. It's not even close to William's or Levinson's best work. It's a challenging assignment to pull all the genre strings into a tight ball of serio-comedic yarn but, then, my cat Hillary could have done a better job with less effort. For some, there might be enough amusement in the political context and subtext to sustain the relatively brief (108 minute) course it takes. Someone got good advice on that score. If only Williams relaxed his jaw and allowed his smile to emerge with some sincerity.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner 


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