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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Man of the Year

A couple of weeks ago I told my adorable husband Fred that I wish people could just demand that they not be forced to use those diabolical Diebold voting machines that were so suspiciously prevalent in the last Presidential election, and now, suddenly, we have a movie that brings these contraptions and their flaws into the public light. It’s a minor miracle, and when I told my hair stylist Gwen about it she looked at me with typical Republican shock and awe and suggested this might just be a coincidence, like her ‘accidentally’ putting a lavender rinse on my hair to match the outfit I was going to wear to the Essex Cinemas in celebration of their 5th Anniversary Party on October 19th.

Nobody wants to give credence to my newly identified powers of clairvoyance, but let me tell you now there are some things you can expect from this week’s opening of Man of the Year starring
Robin Williams. Even before I stepped into the theater at the Essex Cinemas I knew ~ just KNEW ~ that Robin Williams would go all “shticky” on us with a free-flowing monologue about politics and what’s going on in Washington DC. I also just KNEW that Christopher Walken, as Robin’s co-star, would make me guffaw simply by being Christopher Walken and I also KNEW beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was going to be a whole lot more to the plot of this movie that what was shown in the coming attractions.

And they say I’m not psycho! Or is it psychic? I know my delicious doctor, Scott Luria, has repeatedly mentioned one or the other while examining me… Well, never mind, I digress as usual. Every one of my predictions came true, and Man of the Year succeeds splendidly in providing both laughs and thoughtful après-viewing discussion material.

The plot at first seems like something whipped up by the writers of "The Daily Show". Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-esque star of his own daily political wrap-up program. As fate would have it, Tom takes a question from a woman in the live studio audience one night before taping his show and when she asks if he would consider running for President since everybody in DC was doing such a miserable job of it the idea immediately catches fire with the audience, Tom’s guests, and even Tom himself. He’d never considered such a possibility, of course. Who had? A comedian in the White House? Personally, I think we’ve already had a few too many fools in the job, so I didn’t think it was too far-fetched to see the public jump on the campaign trail in droves and support Tom’s bid at our highest office. After all, he tells the truth, a commodity so rare in political circles that it literally leaves the current President (David Nichols; X-Men) speechless in a nationally televised debate where he, the other major party candidate Senator Mills (David Ferry; My Last Confession), and Tom are to discuss the issues as the leading contenders in the upcoming election. Here is where Williams shines at his best, stepping away from the podium and the rigorous structure of such monitored and measured sound bites, leaving the entire production booth and debate moderator Faith Daniels (as herself) in chaos simply because he has broken through the façade of a “debate” without actual interaction and comes face-to-face in asking the Senator and the President some very hardball questions in a forum where they can not avoid facing the truth. In the process, Williams will have you gasping for breath, as he riffs on everything from Enron to gay marriage in the course of two minutes. By the time he is done, he has instantly gained huge popularity amongst voters and done critical damage to the Senator’s chances of election by exposing his corrupt background, leaving only himself and the incumbent as ‘solid” (?) choices. Dare you guess who wins the election? Or does he?

Meanwhile, in another movie that is playing simultaneously in this same theater there is the story of Eleanor Green (Laura Linney; Driving Lessons). Eleanor is a software engineer for the Delacroy Company, the Diebolt-in-sheep’s-clothing that has supplied the entire country with its’ new electronic voting machines. While doing some routine testing of the system just days before the election Eleanor discovers a glitch that skews the results every single time she runs a test “election”. When she attempts to alert her corporate bosses, Eleanor suddenly finds her life in danger. She is stalked in a shopping mall, chased after in the empty bowels of a deserted parking garage (why are they always deserted at just the worst “right” times in the movies?), and even assaulted in her home and eventually discredited and labeled a chronic drug addict and potentially dangerous. In other words, Eleanor is having a really bad week.

Man of the Year turns from its’ first 40 minutes as a rousing comedy to a second act that is
strictly a cat-and-mouse thriller, with Jeff Goldblum as Delacroy’s CEO Alan Stewart standing in the shadows while ordering his henchmen about as they chase Eleanor across the country on her way to meet up with Tom Dobbs. Why she thinks telling him is the answer to her problems is not clear and never really does crystallize entirely. Does she want him to know he shouldn’t really be President so he will acquiesce and tell the media, or simply so he will use his newly acquired Presidential powers to protect her against her would-be assailants? As for Darth Vader, er, Goldblum, is his Delacroy Company out to get our leading lady simply because her blowing the whistle will ruin the credibility of the company and its’ product, or is there something even more sinister involved in their corruption of the election? Conspiracy theorists rejoice!

Like writer/director Barry Levinson’s last political potboiler, Wag the Dog, the comedy is used as a lure to get the audience into their seats, but then the story takes a dark turn onto more topical and serious issues. For those who come to Man of the Year based on the ad campaign or its’ poster featuring Robin Williams in colonial garb and white wig, there is bound to be disappointment. Yes, he does address Congress in this Thomas Jefferson drag and offers up a hilarious couple of minutes at their expense, but this is not a fall-down-funny mindless comedy for those who will come in simply to see Williams in a wig and who consider Jackass: Number Two the epitome of their taste in humor. There are adult themes here about the entire American political process, the influences of big business in currying favor through political contributions and manipulations, and even about the individual character of the candidates we support for public office and about us, as voters, and our mindless adulation of celebrity over substance.

The biggest flaw besides the dishonest ad campaign for the movie has to be in its’ lack of showcase for the talents of its’ own supporting cast members. Lewis Black, one of America’s premier political humorists and a frequent "Daily Show" contributor plays Williams’ head writer on his television show and then is his speechwriter on the campaign trail, but he never really gets a moment to sparkle, and anyone who has ever seen Lewis on one of his trademark rants knows that when it comes to political raving nobody does it better, even Williams. As for Walken, he is as always delicious, but he has little to do here but act as the narrator of the story and be Williams’ confidant. I’d listen to Walken read the phone book and consider that entertainment, so it is a shame that he couldn’t have been used in some greater capacity. Saddest of all is poor Jeff Goldblum, who once had a career with his name above the title when he starred in hits like Independence Day and Jurassic Park. Now he has less face time than some of the cameos provided by celebs on hand playing themselves in walk-on roles. "Saturday Night Live"’s Amy Poehler and (now former cast member) Tina Fey have more to do playing themselves as themselves within a SNL routine than Goldblum has to offer as the villain of the whole movie. Maybe he needs to get a new agent.

Rather than complain about feeling “cheated” by Man of the Year, I left feeling I had lucked out, seeing two good films simultaneously. There was the Robin Williams stand-up comedy interspersed with a Laura Linney thriller. Such a deal. Both are entertaining, and it is interesting to see the two collide in the third act to wind things up for both stories. Some of the endings feel a bit too contrived, true, but this is a story about an honest man who becomes President without spending a penny of corporate money. In other words, it’s a fairy tale, and all fairy tales have happy endings.

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