Barry Levinson, director of “Wag the Dog” and “Good Morning, Vietnam,” ought to know good political satire when he sees it. So when he was penning the screenplay for “Man of the Year,” he should have seen the obscene dud he had on his hands and killed it right there. But he didn’t.

Morgan Morel
Not quite “Mrs. Doubtfire II.” (Courtesy of Universal)

Robin Williams, among the most versatile actors of his time, has won an Oscar (“Good Will Hunting”) and been robbed of one too (“Good Morning, Vietnam”). He has the comedic charm to make a fantastic something out of nothing, but a man has to know his limits. And so, about a year ago, when he was approached to star in the vapid satire “Man of the Year,” he should have seen a flop and backed out. But he didn’t.

Now look at Hollywood’s most perfect everyman (who, every now and then, doubles as its best psychopath), Christopher Walken (“Catch Me if You Can”), the suave, likable Jeff Goldblum (“Jurassic Park”) or the dependable Laura Linney, (“Kinsey”) – each of them belongs in a film much better than “Man of the Year.” This sorry excuse for a satire/comedy/thriller, devoid of even the slightest notion of humor or insight, mercilessly devours them all. When the dust settles, Levinson is a hack, Walken and Goldblum poseurs and Williams irritating beyond belief. Only Linney escapes with any respectability.

Focused on a timely premise, “Man of the Year” is the story of Tom Dobbs (Williams), a cable comedian along the lines of Jon Stewart whose immense popularity leads him to an independent run for the White House. Despite the fact that he only manages to get on the ballot in 13 states, providence selects him savior and he’s resoundingly swept into office. Then he meets Linney’s Eleanor Green, an employee at the company that made the election’s voting machines, who informs him that there was a voting glitch. Dobbs hasn’t really won. What then, is a man of the people to do?

In a time when more and more people admit to getting their news from faux newsmen like Stewart, Levinson hits on an idea with very contemporary potential, yet squanders it just as easily. In all fairness, only the first half of the film is supposed to be funny, but even that has not one joke worth a laugh. And the second half, which morphs into a pseudo-thriller, can’t decide whether or not its tongue belongs in its cheek.

Williams’s delivery may be flawless, but it’s hollow. Levinson’s script has him alternating between sporadic fart jokes and supposedly deep ponderings that amount to little more than what might emerge from a potty-mouthed elementary school play. Neither Walken nor Goldblum have a character worth mentioning, and that’s especially ironic for Walken, who plays what might have been the conscience of the film (he spends most of his time sick in a hospital, so that should be some indication).

But even in the murkiest of fogs there’s often a silver lining, and Linney’s remarkably gripping performance is it. Although she too has little to say or do, she gives a staunch sincerity that ought to have been saved for a bigger role. In the midst of a nervous breakdown, she stubbornly declares her refusal to be taken in by what anyone else says, paralleling her refusal to be taken in by the film’s emptiness. Solemnly, seriously and with the gravity that is the meaning of professionalism, she is the film’s one lonely star.

Star Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Man of the Year
At Showcase and Quality 16
Universal

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