If there's anything sadder than a satire without teeth, it's a thriller without thrills. Even sadder is the rare movie that fails at both genres simultaneously. That, and that alone, makes Man Of The Year exceptional. Actually, make that three genres: Might as well throw in science fiction, since the film stars Robin Williams as a Daily Show-like comedy-news-program host who becomes an unexpectedly viable political candidate based on his sheer hilarity. Yes, that Robin Williams, the one whose comedy hasn't had teeth since the Reagan years.
Not that Levinson and Williams don't try to be up-to-date. The plot unfolds in an America exhausted by a corrupt political process, and takes shape around some questionable voting machines. Meanwhile, Williams peppers his routines with observations on illegal aliens, airport security, same-sex marriage, and flag-burning amendments. Trouble is, they tend to sound like this: "You want an amendment against same-sex marriage? Anyone who's ever been married knows it's always the same sex!" (Fans of Williams' stock characters—the Jewish guy, the b-boy, the mincing queen—won't be disappointed either.)
The film presents Williams' rise to power as an act of benevolent demagoguery. It's like All The King's Men without the irony, and with jokes about breast implants. Then the theoretical hilarity gives way to theoretical suspense, as Laura Linney, an engineer for a gigantor corporation whose computerized voting stands to revolutionize the process, uncovers a major bug. Her attempts to turn whistleblower make her a fugitive. Will Williams rescue her, even if it means the end of his political career?
The answer turns into a big "Who cares?" Levinson visited this topical turf before with Wag The Dog, an overrated film that at least benefited from a David Mamet script, some sly gags, and memorable turns from Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. Man Of The Year has none of that, and even neutered supporting performances from Lewis Black and Christopher Walken don't help. Only a desperate need for relevance makes it chug along from one painful scene with pre-digested observations (Williams goes on a righteous tirade during a presidential debate) to the next (Williams shows up on Capitol Hill dressed like a founding father) and so on. It ends up feeling as phony the process it so desperately wants to skewer.