You’re in trouble when the most original element in your movie is a cuddly Christopher Walken. (A couple of deft smiles render him positively charming and sweet-seeming, which, if you think about it, makes for a new kind of chilling; the man is a genius.) Walken’s Jack Menken appears in a couple of time frames in Man of the Year, as narrator looking back, and as the participant/observer in the story he tells, that is, the election of his client, a comedian named Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) as president of the U.S.
The initial premise is adequate. Taking seriously the much-repeated truism that increasing numbers of consumers “get their news” from self-described comedy shows, Man of the Year imagines that a comedian would be able to assemble the team, money, and apparatus to run for president. At first, the story goes, he makes his campaign sober and non-substantive, like other campaigns: he devises a stump speech, much to the horror of Jack and his writers, headed by Eddie (Lewis Black, slightly subdued), which he repast to snoozy effects. His montage-sequence audiences appear bored, eyes rolling and mouths agape, signs of worse to come.
At last, Tom is invited to participate in a presidential debate, with his interchangeable opponents, Democratic incumbent and Republican challenger. For this performance, he’s inspired to mouth off. On the debate stage, he emerges from behind his podium and stalks the stage, alarming the moderator (“Return to your podium!”), while delivering something like a Robin Williams rant, easy-targeting Enron, Congressional bills on flag burning, and border “security.” The studio audience loves him, post-debate journalists refer to his “undisciplined behavior,” and suddenly, it looks like Tom might win some few percentage points in the election. “You’re a good candidate,” says Jack, “as loony as that seems.”
And with that, Jack is laid out by an emphysema attack. This near-death of his good friend — plus a glimpse of himself looking boring on the hospital waiting room TV — moves Tom to persist in his bad behavior: the show on the road involves lights and balloons and big music, with Tom running around like a rock star and listeners cheering and stomping. Still no substance. Just more flash.
At the start of Act Two, Tom wins the election. It’s unbelievable and crazy, but as Tom watches the returns in Jack’s hospital room, he takes it as a mandate. The fact that he has no platform or ideas about what he wants to do. In the time between November and January, he’s addressed as president-elect and attended by Secret Service agents. He’s also allowed to do whatever he wants, mainly, party, invade Congress for a self–promotional speech in a George Washington get-up, and party some more.
He and his team don’t actually talk policy or even say much beyond observing how cool it is that they’ve done this impossible thing, while laughing at whatever pops out of Tom/Williams’ mouth (the many reaction shots throughout the film indicate where you’re supposed to laugh, in case you don’t get it). “Democracy is a collision of ideas,” pronounces Tom when asked about his cabinet. He prattles on about the dangers of steroids and the delights of an “all-lesbian cabinet.” He plays paintball with this staff and cooks a Thanksgiving turkey.
Running on a collision course to this increasingly disjointed plot is the story of Eleanor Green (Laura Linney). A dedicated programmer at the company that delivered the voting machines that determined the election, she notes early on a “glitch” that produces inaccurate results. When she takes this to CEO Hemmings (Rick Roberts), he assures her the problem will be fixed before the election, but no. There’s too much money at stake, in this and future elections in other nations, to admit error. And so the company plunges ahead: the election results go wrong, and only Ellie knows it.
The troubles with Barry Levinson’s movie are many, including an erratic pace and too many unfunny diversions, but the primary issue, strangely, is its lack of pointed political humor. Instead of taking hard aim at specific systemic absurdities and corporate abuses (like, say, the real-life fake news comedians it cites frequently, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher), the movie glides along on that one-dimensional notion of broken voting machines. While the company’s subsequent cover-up is surely bad, as menacing lawyer Alan Stewart (Jeff Goldblum) goes so far as to stick Ellie full of drugs in order to make her story, should she decide to tell it, unbelievable, the movie allows that the initial mistake is no one’s fault. (This even though it takes Ellie about two seconds to solve it after the fact, with a helpful-silly clue offered by Wheel of Fortune on TV in the background.)
This distracting other-plot lobs a general criticism of “corporations” and “lawyers.” Worse, it depends on the crazy-seeming lady Ellie. While her paranoia is well-founded — a thug in a mask sneaks into her home and injects her neck with a cocaine-benzedrine-other-stuff cocktail — her appearance repeatedly makes her an object of ridicule and abuse. Eddie thinks she may be a succubus, Jack warns Tom that she seems unhinged. She skitters and flails, her voice tremulous and her affect uncertain, approximating a standard ditzy-girl turn, stuck inside a drearily dramatic part, stuck inside an ostensibly comic film. Ellie’s the locus for the film’s instability and lack of direction, while the guys get to tromp around in its more explicitly comic terrain. Ellie deserves a recount.