Like a politician riding the campaign trail, Barry Levinson's Man of the Year talks out of both sides of its mouth by promising one thing but delivering another. Ad materials suggest an irreverent Robin Williams comedy that aims to satirize our electoral process. Once that plot is established, though, Year converts into a low-level political potboiler that's scraped from the sides of John Grisham's circular file.
What's funny about this deceptive bait-and-switch is that Year rests on the shoulders of a character whose primary directive is to slice through the empty rhetoric that's clogging our branches of government. Talk show host Tom Dobbs (Williams) takes Washington bureaucrats to task on a nightly basis - the character is modeled after Daily Show host Jon Stewart. At the urging of his fed-up fan base, Dobbs tosses his hat into the presidential race and hits the campaign trail with his manager (Christopher Walken) and producer (Lewis Black) in tow.
Dobbs initially tries to take the process seriously, even as his advisors urge him to loosen up. He addresses hot-button issues such as border security and alternate fuel sources but gains no ground in the polls. Finally, with the election looming, Dobbs realizes humor is his only way to reach the masses. During a televised debate, he seizes the spotlight and shines it back on his opponents. America responds to his honesty, but Dobbs fears it might be too little, too late.
What the comedian doesn't know is that behind-the-scenes, forces are unwittingly working in his favor. A revolutionary touch-pad polling system meant to debut during the presidential election has a glitch, which is discovered by technician Eleanor Green (Laura Linney). She goes to her supervisor (Jeff Goldblum), who tells her to ignore the flaw. The company's stock is rising - no, it isn't Enron - and such a revelation would spell financial ruin. When the polling hiccup leads to a Dobbs victory, Green finds herself on the run from corporate thugs and hired goons.
Year ends up being two movies, neither of which works. The humor's too stale for it to be a successful comedy, and the suspense is stretched too thin for it to be a riveting thriller. The talented Linney plays paranoid with enough conviction to keep the clumsy conspiracy subplot moving along, but she seems disinterested in the underwritten romance that's implied between her and Williams.
Propping up the improbable suspense shots are stale bits of stand-up Williams wrote years ago. Levinson seems obligated to unleash his leading man every 15 minutes with a resigned sigh, as if to say, "We're paying for him, we might as well use him." An inch of dust rests atop the comedian's improvised jokes about hanging chads, Adolf Hitler, and Hugh Grant. When Williams runs out of things to say, he grabs his crotch. When did he become a prop comic?
Just as Levinson ignored the irony of his film's marketing campaign, he seems to overlook the emptiness of his film's message. Because Dobbs wins on a technicality, we must assume his calls for sweeping political change went unheard by the voting public. It would behoove you to follow their lead and ignore the propaganda this picture is peddling.
Your cinema ticket dollars at work.