“Man of The Year” is being pitched on the lines of a movie that may otherwise have been called “President Doubtfire”, the ads promising an inoccuous one-joke comedy about Robin Williams as a wacky TV comedian who runs for President… and wins! With “Wag The Dog’s” Barry Levinson at the helm, that the actual film is something entirely different shouldn’t really be a surprise. But then Levinson goes and does something fairly devious… he builds a second surprise into the first, so that what at first appears to be a dark political satire hiding inside a “zany” comedy premise unfolds further to reveal itself as… a quaint 40s-style morality play.
The foundation could’ve originated as the pitch for a feature-length spinoff of “The Daily Show” (or “Colbert Report” for that matter): Cable TV political-satirist Tom Dobbs runs for president as a barnstorming, fun-poking independent candidate… and actually WINS! Robin Williams plays Dobbs, and at first his broad, scattershot brand of humor seems an ill-fitting substitute for John Stewart’s politically-charged sarcasm; until one realizes that Levinson and Williams are playing Dobbs in another direction – that of the Capraesque everyman do-gooder.
And while Capra’s era was mercifully spared the amuck technology that drives the film’s primary plot twist, he would doubtlessly have found common ground with the tough nut of right and wrong it brings about. The election has been conducted using an upstart company’s electronic voting kiosks, and a vote-counting program which a low-level employee (Laura Linney) had discovered is fundamentally buggy. It’s this bug that causes Dobbs’ surprise electoral win, and gives way to the central quandry of the film: Dobbs is a good man, in this for the right reasons, who could very likely make a good president. But his victory isn’t legitimate, and soon enough he knows it. What’s the right thing to do? Tell the truth and lose the chance or live the lie and use it for good? Complicating matters are Linney’s former employers, who will be ruined if the truth comes out and are willing to go to dark extremes to cover up the bug.
The best intentions are on display here, but it doesn’t entirely “work.” Folksy charm goes a long way, but doing a political satire thats almost entirely apolitical is a difficult wire to walk. Also, the “thriller” storyline focusing on Linney’s persecution goes WAY dark WAY too early on, and the effect is whiplash-inducing. Most of these flaws are polished away by a fine cast and a likable atmosphere, but they leave issues that’ll nag you later on.
Imperfect, but worthy and worth seeing.
FINAL RATING: 7/10