Remember Barry Levinson’s wicked-sharp 1997 political comedy Wag the Dog? Remember how fresh and daring it was, how it felt almost dangerous for a studio film to acknowledge how manufactured American political and public life was? Looking back on it today, almost a decade later, that film feels more quaint than anything else, as if even in its wildest nightmares it couldn’t conceive of the lengths to which politicians and their handlers could go (why invent a fake war, like the antiheroes of Dog did, when you can produce a real one and make millions profiteering in the process, as the actual current administration has?) but at the time it was almost — almost — radical.
If you’re hoping for something along those same lines, something that even begins to rip apart the vast sea of bullshit that constitutes the American conversation today, forget it. Hell, if you’re seeking nothing but a cohesive film with a consistent tone, look elsewhere. Man of the Year, Levinson’s latest — he wrote, directed, and produced — is an easy and obvious swipe at the plasticine posturing of elected officials and the focus-grouped platitudes they spout, and of our corporately financed and lobbyist-run federal government. It condescends to acknowledge that there is a frisson of genuine grassroots anger beginning to electrify more than just the minority of the populace that’s been pissed off all along, but it lacks all conviction in its would-be insurgent attitudes and lacks any courage in seeing through to a tough conclusion the political realities it pretends to attack. It’s not often you get to slap a movie for cowardice, but Man of the Year deserves it, for thinking itself brave and ending up cowering in the corner, peeing all over itself in terror at the can of worms it has opened.
Half the movie seems to suggest that the political situation in the country is intractable, hopelessly entrenched, unfixable, while the other half implies that a nice revolution would do the trick. And here’s the kicker: the two halves — the comedy half of Robin Williams (RV, The Night Listener) doing his tired standup schtick as a Jon Stewart-esque late-night TV comedian who runs for president, and the corporate-conspiracy-thriller half as a Diebold-esque voting-machine company covers up evidence of a major programming snafu on Election Day — can’t decide whether they’re pro-we’re-totally-screwed or pro-revolution, and they flip-flop, trading off positions like weaselly candidates afraid of taking any position at all lest someone take offense. Levinson (Envy, Bandits) is for it before he’s against it, whatever it is, and it’s as painful a contortion to watch here as it is at a politician’s press conference. (And that’s all beside the unforgivable crime, the one that ignores the needs of the entertainment-values voter: the film is neither funny enough nor suspenseful enough to scratch either movie-loving itch.)
Did Levinson imagine that it would be enough to have Williams — as well as Angry Liberal Comic Lewis Black (Accepted) as one of Williams’s comedian-candidate’s entourage — simply come out on stage, so to speak, and tell us that politicians are in the pockets of big business and that the two-party system is broken? Man acts as if it’s handing down some major revelation and sets up a way to smash the paradigm, but it dares not — even within the confines of satire, which is allowed to be ridiculous — follow through: it resorts to the thriller stuff so that the election can be manipulated, as if that’s the only way, even in satire, that a straight-talking candidate might win an election. You see, that Election Day snafu is what hands Williams’s Tom Dobbs the presidency. It’s not that there is an actual desire for real change among the electorate in this fictional world — it’s that, weirdly, only corporate malfeasance could bring about change. (The thriller half of the film features poor, wonderful Laura Linney [The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Kinsey] in an unforgiving and unforgivable role as a whistleblower at the voting-machine company; only her inherent sympathy, as an actor for the character, prevents her from completely sinking the film.) And so, in the end, Levinson paints himself into a corner, leaving his hero with no option but to chicken out. You can forgive Tom Dobbs, for he’s the honest man, the straight talker. But you can’t forgive Levinson: he says he wants a revolution, but he wants someone else to start it, to run it, to see it through.
The worst of it, though, is that in smoothing over all the potential conflict in its race to the only possible ending Levinson has left open, Man ends up shooting off precisely the same kind of phony, feel-good bullshit it began by condemning. It’s almost as if Levinson — and his corporate overlords — didn’t want us leaving the theater ripe for uprising.