Review: A Vot of Apathy for Robin Williams Political Satire

We've seen plenty of "Jon Stewart for president" bumper stickers, and it would be fun to see a straight-talking, scathingly satiric guy like him on the campaign trail against the usual suspects.

Barry Levinson's "Man of the Year" aims for that scenario, though, funny as he is at times, Robin Williams in the commentator-turned-candidate role is a lightweight, almost as empty a suit as the career politicians he's up against.

With a premise too absurd for belief even alongside 2000's photo-finish presidential election, "Man of the Year" becomes a campaign of character, relying mainly on its cast to see it through.

Luckily for writer-director Levinson, Williams and especially co-stars Laura Linney, Christopher Walken and Lewis Black deliver well enough to keep the movie in the race, making viewers care about these people more than the story merits.

Mr. Williams Goes to Washington

The actor and filmmaker behind "Good Morning, Vietnam" team up again for the story of Tom Dobbs, a political commentator who seems less about substance and more about the manic standup jabber on which Williams built his early career.

Williams' Tom is the comic host of a political talk show that supposedly tells it like a sick-and-tired electorate wants to hear it. We're led to understand that Tom's an insightful wit whose assaults on Washington's power brokers have made him so beloved his TV audience wildly cheers at his innocent comment about running for president himself.

The trouble with Levinson's screenplay is that Tom talks a lot but doesn't say much. We essentially see Williams doing his schtick, prattling in such a bluster that the mildly amusing material sounds funnier than it is, with some generic politically rabble-rousing tidbits thrown in to establish him as a voice of dissent, a title the character doesn't deserve.

Even so, Tom shakes up the establishment by jumping in as an independent alternative to the bland Republican incumbent and the blander Democratic challenger. Though Tom polls like a respectable third-party candidate, it's all meant as a lark and a reminder to the real politicos that their job is to serve the American people.

Then the impossible happens. Under a new computerized voting system, Tom wins the election. As his sickly manager (Walken), head writer (Black) and other minions prepare for the transition to ultimate power, an employee of the company that developed the voting system, Eleanor Green (Linney), turns up claiming a software glitch mistakenly handed the election to Tom.

It's left to Tom to reveal the possible mistake or keep his mouth shut and take the job.

Walken, Linney and Black Prop Up Script

With the exit-polling that private parties do in every election, Levinson's plot just crumbles. His far-better political satire "Wag the Dog," with its outrageously manufactured TV war to distract the electorate, was credible stuff by comparison.

It's outlandish that a guy on the ballot in just 13 states -- and polling a distant third in those -- would be declared the winner without an uproar. Yet the media, the political parties and the public simply shrug and accept the fact that Tom won.

What keeps "Man of the Year" alive is the homey interplay of its principals, Tom's talk-show staff coming off like a fun family of kooks. Walken's a grand old man as the entertainment manager who becomes an unlikely kingmaker, despite an odd subplot about his character's health problems from smoking.

Black, toned down from the bellow of his standup act, is surprisingly even-keeled as Tom's wise and wisecracking writer. Jeff Goldblum is thrown in to little effect as the dastardly corporate attorney hiding the truth about whether the computerized voting system was flawed.

Linney's the real victor, creating a rich, noble, conflicted character who's a much worthier successor than Tom to the everyman heroes of such films as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," which Levinson seems to be emulating.

There was a much better movie tucked inside the story of Linney's Eleanor, the meek corporate serf fighting back against corrupt bosses. If the title wasn't already taken by a Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy classic, Eleanor would have made a fine heroine for a movie called "Woman of the Year."

"Man of the Year," a Universal release, is rated PG-13 for language including some crude sexual references, drug related material and brief violence. Running time: 115 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.