Man of the Year can't decide if it's a hilarious political satire or if it's a fact-finding thriller in the vein of The Pelican Brief. Rather than picking a direction and running with it, the film tries to be both. The result is a mess.
Writer/director Barry Levinson's script tells the story of a Jon Stewart styled television host running for and winning the presidency of the United States of America. Scratch that, Tom Dobbs isn't just styled after Stewart he is Stewart, with the names changed to protect Levinson from lawsuits.
One day during his pre-broadcast warmup, a member of Dobbs' audience suggests he run for president. That gets the ball rolling and suddenly he's a major candidate. But the movie's not about how he gets elected or the way he shakes up the political process. It's being advertised as that, and it would have been intriguing, but Levinson has taken a completely different and far less interesting path.
The film glosses right over Tom Dobbs' entertainment career and subsequent rise to legitimate candidacy in a brief opening montage narrated by his manager Jack Menken (Christopher Walken), in order to rush on to a strange voter fraud, election cover-up plot. See, even the film's writer/director Barry Levinson doesn't appear to believe the American people would ever elect someone outside the corrupt party lines, so in order to get his famous comedian on a fast track to the oval office he invents a simplistic (and somewhat stupid) subplot involving incorrect computerized tallying and corporate corruption.
The U.S. government, in an attempt to rectify the voting problems inherent in other more complicated methods, hires a corporation to design a foolproof computer program to handle all of the country's voting. Strangely enough, the government doesn't bother with checking up on how they're progressing. They pay them, and then stick their fingers in their ears while corporate America takes over the democratic process almost completely unsupervised. I'm not sure which is less plausible, that, or voters electing a comedian. The idea seems born out of some almost unreasoned fear of technology and big business. Levinson has a secret agenda and he throws himself wholeheartedly into pursuing it.
It's not long before Eleanor (Laura Linney), an honest employee at the evil profit-driven mega-corp, discovers a problem with their shiny new voting system. When her employer tries to drug her and discredit her she sets out to hunt down Tom Dobbs and prove the election was rigged to raise stock prices. Along the way, she dodges murderous goons and syringe toting assholes bent on subverting democracy and hiding the truth.
Before long, Eleanor's corruption side trip has taken over the entire movie, marginalizing the much more interesting story of Robin Williams' engaging Tom Dobbs character in favor of following around Linney and her efforts expose an election fraud perpetrated on the country by her lazy corporate boss. Wait a minute; I thought this was a comedy?
Sorry guys, hanging chads have been done to death and nobody is interested. The story here should be Dobbs, and whenever he's on screen making poignant jokes at the expense of his political adversaries the movie really works. Robin Williams is on his game ripping apart all the pomposity and rot of America's political process. He's funny, he's vicious, and he's absolutely right. Why doesn't the movie give us more of it? What little screen time he is given is wasted. Dobbs kicks off his campaign playing it serious, boring not only voters but the movie's audience to death. Until he lets loose, Tom Dobbs is a big fat zero. Even when he's switched on, we only see Dobbs in brief glimpses, while the film obsesses over Linney's truth hunting software engineer.
For her part, Linney's never given a bad performance. The script just doesn't have a good role for her. The same is true of Christopher Walken, who tries as Dobb's longtime manager, but is ultimately wasted. Why bother with Walken when you could've plugged anyone into the part?
More Dobbs on the attack and you'd have a memorable comedy with a big satirical bite. Instead we've been given a wishy-washy thriller with political leanings that never quite fit. I think the real problem is simply that writer and director Barry Levinson just doesn't believe in his own premise. It's as if his entire script is dedicated to making excuses for it. Man of the Year doesn't believe in itself, and it doesn't believe in America. The movie dooms us all to a world where voters are too stupid the right thing, and our only hope for a future free of bought and sold politicians is a computer error that subverts the democratic process. It's the missed opportunity of the year.