Thursday, October 19, 2006

Movies: A political fantasy too silly for satire

In a U.S. pre-election season full of drama, contention and surprise, "Man of the Year" arrives on the scene with the blistering impact of a spoonful of cold mashed potatoes. A sort-of-political kind-of-satire written and directed by Barry Levinson, the picture resurrects a fantasy that periodically seizes the imaginations of Hollywood studios: that a plain-talking outsider will roll into Washington, propelled by popular frustration with the status quo, and clean up the mess.

Never mind that the wish this pseudo-populist dream fulfills is less for the restoration of democracy than for its abrogation. The status quo is usually safe from whatever arrows the movies aim in its direction, and it is hard to think of a movie less likely to incite discomfort than "Man of the Year."

This is a shame, since Levinson was responsible for "Wag the Dog," a gratifyingly sharp and imaginative dissection of the media spectacle that often confuses itself with political reality. But that movie was made at a time - the late 1990s - when its cynical paranoia could feel fresh and pointed rather than one more voice in a weary chorus.

"Man of the Year" wants to plant itself in the noise and fury of the present, but without raising any hackles. Its hero, Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams), is a comedian who is the host of a popular television talk show. His name is frequently mentioned in the same breath as real-life models like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart. Tom's shtick, however, is the familiar rapid-fire Robin Williams free association, more silly than stinging and more likely to titillate with sexual naughtiness than to provoke with topical insight.

Like Chris Rock's character in the similar (and similarly disappointing) "Head of State," Tom is meant to be honest and fearless, offering a welcome antidote to the usual timid, hypocritical candidate-speak. He serves up some pretty shocking stuff, boldly coming out in favor of environmental protection and improved education, while pointing out that politics is dominated by "special interests," that Americans are sick of bitter partisanship, and that you can't tell the two major parties apart anyway.

It would be impolitic of me to point out that, actually, you can.

But Hollywood may be the last place in America where the dream of a nonideological consensus survives, if only in the form of commercial anxiety about alienating potential ticket buyers. And it is true that neither Republicans nor Democrats will find much to take offense at in "Man of the Year," though for precisely that reason neither group will find much to respond to either. Unlike the television satirists whose cachet he tries to bogart, Tom is careful never to address the actual issues that provide the content and context of contemporary political argument.

Instead the movie is all about process: about the machinery of celebrity and also about voting machines. As Tom makes his improbable, impetuous way down the presidential campaign trail, a second plot unfolds at a company called Delacroy, which has a lucrative franchise in computerized voting systems.

Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), a Delacroy employee, attempts to alert her bosses to a glitch in the software, and for her pains is stalked, defamed, harassed and lectured by Jeff Goldblum, who plays the company's slimy chief lawyer. (Not that the flaw is the result of anything as provocative as a political conspiracy. Just technical difficulties.)

The two plots converge in a multi- genre pileup that wrecks whatever comic momentum the movie might have had. It swerves from thriller to romantic comedy to farce without much conviction, though you can occasionally salvage a glimmer of amusing possibility. Williams scores with a few throwaway jokes. Lewis Black (as a writer on Tom's show) rants and gesticulates and provides a link with the real world of abrasive television humor.

Christopher Walken, as Tom's wise and loyal manager, has a good time, as he always does. Linney, bless her, insists on acting, which she is very good at but which is pretty much irrelevant here.

After many speeches, "Man of the Year" arrives at the shocking conclusion that maybe the White House is not the best outlet for a professional comedian. I'm glad that argument, at least for now, is settled.