There's a simple fact of film criticism which can be very, very hard to follow: One can only review the film as it is presented. Many critics, myself included, are tempted to criticize movies for what they're aren't, or for what they could have been. (Gene Siskel was often guilty of this.) Keeping this in mind, how does one judge a film which was mis-represented by its advertising? The critic can't blame the filmmakers for this and can only look at the film in question. Thus is the case with Barry Levinson's Man of the Year.
Robin Williams stars in Man of the Year as Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-esque host of a talk show which mixes political and comic overtones. One night, an audience member asks Tom why he doesn't run for president. When Tom mentions this on his show, the e-mails pour in and he begins to take the idea seriously, much to the chagrin of his manager, Jack Menken (Christopher Walken), and his head writer, Eddie Langston (Lewis Black). Given the clear support that he's getting and the feedback from viewers who are tired of the political parties, Tom decides to throw his hat in the ring.
Meanwhile, a computer firm called Delacroy has received a contract to supply computerized voting booths to every precinct in the country. Employee Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) finds a glitch in the system which makes the program unreliable. She takes this to company president Hemmings (Rick Roberts), who assures her that it will be taken care of.
After a slow start where he reined in his trademark irreverent wit, Tom has began to gain favor with the public as he decides to say what is truly on his mind. He decides that since he probably won't win, he might as well be remembered as the honest candidate. Thus, on election night, everyone is surprised when Tom does win -- especially Tom! Stunned by this, Tom begins to face the fact that he must assemble a cabinet and begin making some tough decisions. At this same time, Eleanor, who has been fired by Delacroy, attempts to communicate with Tom, to inform him that he may not in fact have won the election.
Man of the Year was advertised as a film in which a talk show host, much like Bill Maher or Jon Stewart is elected president. And, that does happen in the movie. But, the ads also implied that the movie was an all-out comedy about the results of electing a comedian president and the havoc which he would wreak. Well, that's not what this movie is. In fact, Man of the Year is much more of a serious political film with some mild thriller elements. Sure, with Robin Williams in the driver's seat, plus Christopher Walken and Lewis Black, there are some funny moments, but the bulk of the film wants to take a non-comedic view of the American political process. But, as stated above, we can't judge the movie for how it was advertised.
But, even if one had never single a single ad for Man of the Year and watched it in sheer ignorance, they would still want it to be a comedy about a comedian who is elected president. As it stands, the movie is very non-commital and never satisfying.
On the one hand, we've got the story of Tom Dobbs running for president, and again, Dobbs has some very funny lines. But, the bulk of this storyline deals with a man who gets into the race to make a point and then learning that he wants to actually prove that point. Tom is a media figure who becomes a politician overnight. He wrestles with the consequences of his actions and the effect on those around, especially the ailing Menken. Following the election, Tom finds himself smacked with the overwhelming reality that he is now Commander in Chief.
On the other hand, we've gotten the Eleanor Green plotline, where she is dealing with a corrupt firm which wants to cover up a secret which would effect everyone in the U.S. Following a scandal, Eleanor flees from the company and attempts to contact Tom. Her sanity is questioned and her life is constantly at risk.
Thus, Man of the Year is a concoction which throws politics, corporate greed, espionage, and the importance of the media into the viewer's face. With films such as Good Morning, Vietnam and Wag the Dog, writer/director Barry Levinson is no stranger to film which discuss politics and question authority. But, he's simply bitten off more than he can chew here. I hate to go all Siskel on him, but if the movie had simply focused on a fish-out-of-water who became president, that should have given him plenty of material. (As long as he didn't wander into the territory already mined by Dave.) Instead, he throws in too much as once and the movie never feels focused.
This feeling is further heightened by the performance of Robin Williams. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of William's comedy from way back and I like him in dramatic roles as well. But, as with many of his films, Williams seems to be out of control here. Never mind the fact that Tom Dobbs is a comedian, in several scenes the man on-screen isn't Tom Dobbs, but simply Robin Williams. Yes, there is some funny material here (which Levinson claims was scripted), but one can't help but feel that they are watching Robin Williams do stand up at times and not viewing a character in a film.
Man of the Year is not what it promised to be, nor is it what it could have been. In the end, the movie must be accepted for what it is: unsatisfying.
Man of the Year is elected to DVD courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film is coming to DVD in two separate releases, one full-frame and the other widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. As one would expect from a major release which was just in theaters four months ago, the transfer looks pretty good. The image is free from any distracting grain or defects from the source material. The film has been shot in a very natural style and the colors are realistic and flesh tones look good. I noticed some mild moments of video noise and a few hints of artifacting, but otherwise the transfer looked fine.
The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. This track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Stereo effects are OK at best, but the surround sound is very effective, most notably during the many crowd scenes, especially the debate scene. Being a dramedy, there weren't many chances for substantial subwoofer action, but one car-crash scene did prove that the bass channel wasn't asleep.
The DVD contains only two extra features. "Commander in Chief: Making of Man of the Year" (13 minutes) is a making of featurette which thankfully spares us from too many clips. Instead, we get comments from the cast and Levinson on the nature of making of the film. The plot and script aren't discussed, but rather the participants talk about Levinson's style and how the subject matter was handled. "Robin Williams: 'Stand Up' Guy" (9 minutes) focuses on the star of the film and Levinson discussing how he directed Williams. Unfortunately, this featurette gives the impression that there is a lot of footage of Williams "riffing" that we didn't get to see.
A movie in which Robin Williams is elected president? I'd love to see that? Not so fast my friend. Man of the Year had the potential to be a great comedy/drama where a man with sincere ideals faces the harsh realities of politics. Instead we get a muddled film which is equal parts comedy, drama, and thriller. The end result is a movie which should be impeached.