`Bob Roberts' Spoofs Campaigns

Though a tad lightweight, Tim Robbins's comedy cuts through Hollywood political blather. FILM REVIEW

TO look at most Hollywood movies - and most independent movies, for that matter - you might think politics didn't exist, or at least didn't matter much.

Political subjects are rarely allowed to intrude on the action, farce, and melodrama that dominate American film. And when such a topic does try for attention - in the recent "Patriot Games," for instance, with its talk of violent nationalism - the material is generally hedged, fudged, and diluted so much that it's hard to tell what stance the filmmakers are taking, if it's a stance at all.

By contrast, television tackles controversial issues with some regularity, which helps explain why TV is often attacked by partisans who perceive bias in one direction or another. Such bias is often alleged to be liberal, although it's worth mentioning that most programming tries to be apolitical, and therefore tends to reinforce the status quo by refusing to question it. Since the status quo has been predominantly conservative in recent years, this programming isn't really apolitical, and it certainly i sn't liberal.

As for theatrical movies, the same partisans often scold them for including too much sex or violence. But complaints on more complicated issues are infrequent since movies - bankrolled largely by corporate interests - are generally too cautious (and cowardly) to touch on matters that might be very controversial.

Enter a fine exception to this boring rule: "Bob Roberts," a new movie by Tim Robbins, who directed it from his own screenplay. He also plays the title character, a right-wing folk singer (!) aiming for a big political career.

Bob is rich, righteous, and often ridiculous. In some respects, he's obviously meant to parody certain characteristics that Mr. Robbins sees in today's conservative politicos. In other ways, though, his self-serving and power-hungry nature goes beyond ideology, so open-minded audiences of all political opinions may find much in him to laugh at, mull over, and maybe even learn from.

Roberts may be Republican on the ballot, but Robbins's jibes are aimed at the broader target of "the Hollywoodization of Washington," as he puts it in the film's production notes.

Although it's fictional, "Bob Roberts" is made in the style of a TV documentary - the sort of earnest sociological report that shows up often on PBS, and which (in a rather different context) was satirized so superbly by "This Is Spinal Tap" a few years ago. The picture introduces us to Bob, his aides and associates, his many feverish fans, and a few of the enemies who'd give anything to wipe him off the political map.

Some of the jokes in "Bob Roberts" may escape young spectators who don't remember when left-wing folk singers were all the rage and had a real impact on the political scene. Especially hilarious for those who do recall that period are the Roberts album jackets - "The Freewheelin' Bob Roberts" and "The Times Are Changin' Back" - designed as conservatively skewed echoes of Bob Dylan albums from the psychedelic '60s. Fortunately, most of the movie's humor is tied less to bygone days and can be enjoyed regar dless of age.

FOR all its brash and sometimes brilliant humor, I must note that "Bob Roberts" is a rather lightweight entertainment. Many of its ideas are thin, beyond the general notion that politicians often preach more passionately than they practice. It contributes little of real substance to current social and political debate.

Worse, the whole last portion of the film depends on a plot twist that simply isn't credible. I don't want to reveal too much, so I'll only say it involves an effort to win sympathy from an assassination attempt. This makes no sense in historical terms, as the experience of George Wallace proves, or in dramatic terms, since it posits a conspiracy too huge to be believed by anyone except Oliver Stone.

These arguments aside, "Bob Roberts" is a bold and often hilarious movie that cares enough about politics to take actual stands on real issues. This may limit its audience, and therefore the film flies in the face of everything Hollywood normally stands for - namely, big profits. What's important about "Bob Roberts" isn't that it favors the left or pokes fun at the right, but that it has the courage to bring politics into the make-believe discourse of mainstream American film. This is one political sides how worth every box-office vote it receives.

Robbins, who also plays the lead in "The Player" this season, portrays Bob Roberts with enormous wit. The supporting cast includes Giancarlo Esposito, of "Night on Earth" and "Do the Right Thing" fame, as a manic journalist - whose fate is another of the film's less credible twists - and real-life pundit Gore Vidal as Roberts's electoral opponent, a senator who dares to run his campaign on issues instead of images.

Lending further spice are special appearances by Susan Sarandon, James Spader, Fred Ward, and Alan Rickman, among others. Jean Lepine did the smart-looking cinematography, and David Robbins wrote the hilarious neofolk songs with Tim Robbins, his brother.

Rated R for a little rough language.

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