What if Americans were so fed up with craven, camera-ready politics, they actually elected a stand-up comic to the Oval Office? Two-drink minimum at state dinners? Louie Anderson for veep?
It’s a halfway funny idea that goes impeachably bad in Barry Levinson’s “Man of the Year,” a contrived, tone-deaf medley of satire and intrigue that makes a mockery of making a mockery.
Writer-director Levinson — who plumbed the subterfuge of politics with a lot more skill and wit in “Wag the Dog” (1997) — can’t quite swallow his own premise. That is, that a Jon Stewart-style cable TV talk-show host named Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) could use “the power of the Internet and the cult of personality” to score a dark-horse victory in the presidential election.
So Levinson hedges his bets. Dobbs ascends to the presidency not on a wave of popular support, but — hold on to your hanging chads! — by virtue of a computer glitch in the country’s new digital voting system. How knock-your-socks-off plausible.
While Dobbs says funny things about masturbation and lesbians to a baffled but oddly complacent media, whistleblower Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) is shown the door by the Silicon Valley tech firm that ignored her glitch memo.
The scenes with Linney (“The Truman Show”) strike a discordantly heavy note in Levinson’s otherwise bantamweight script, yielding bizarre, fake-feeling encounters like the one in which Eleanor poses as an FBI agent, finagles her way past the Secret Service and confronts the president-elect at a private party for Dobbs’ ailing talent manager (Christopher Walken). Preposterously, romantic sparks fly and Levinson turns it into a pick-up scene.
How much funnier “Man of the Year” might have been had Levinson followed through on the fantasy-fulfillment side of things (a la “Dave,” the similar Kevin Kline vehicle and a vastly more worthwhile effort). After his victory, what outrageous act of political disobedience does Dobbs — the self-styled smasher of the status quo — go out and do? He plays paintball.
Through it all, Dobbs — and, more importantly, the people around him — act as though he’s won a celebrity chili cookoff, not the highest office in the land. And that feels like just another campaign promise, unfulfilled.
‘Man of the Year’
Robin Williams, Laura Linney, Christopher Walken Rated PG-13, 112 minutes