Mr. Williams goes to Washington

'Man of the Year' feels out of place, wanting to be both political jest and suspense thriller.

No matter what your political stripe, who has not entertained the idea of Jon Stewart as president of the United States? The popularity of his political satire with young and not-so-young voters – I mean, viewers – makes him a natural candidate.

This must have been the thinking behind writer-director Barry Levinson's "Man of the Year," which is about Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams), a political jokester with his own cable TV talk show who decides to make a run for the White House.

Initially stiff and humorless on the stump, he finds his voice during a televised three-way debate featuring the Democratic incumbent and his Republican challenger. That voice sounds suspiciously like standard-issue Robin Williams shtick.

My guess is that Levinson just let him loose, as he did when they collaborated on "Good Morning, Vietnam." And that's the problem. Instead of listening to a scabrous political wit, we feel as if we are in a comedy club. Except that most club comics these days, not to mention late-night talk-show hosts, are a lot more scathing and topical than Williams is here.

Levinson made a great political comedy once, "Wag the Dog," but that had a script by David Mamet. Here, Levinson seems to be torn between making a political jest and a suspense thriller. Neither works.

The political material is toothless. Virtually no direct assaults are made on the current White House or, for that matter, its detractors; the incumbent president resembles no one. Dobbs is presented as an honest man – too honest to be president. He's a Capra-esque smarty-pants who just happens to become the president-elect.

When a rogue employee, Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), discovers that a glitch in her company's computer voting machines mistakenly elected Dobbs, her bosses target her for extinction. What is this second-rate skullduggery doing in a movie ostensibly about a comic who laughs his way into the White House?

Williams plays the unmarried Dobbs as a wallflower who blossoms as Eleanor enters his life. When he realizes he didn't really win the election, he is neither happy nor sad, just blah. He is in a position to discredit Eleanor and become president anyway, but there's no lust for power in this guy's soul. Remember "All the King's Men"? Dobbs is the anti-Willie Stark.

How could a TV superstar who makes his living flaying politicians be such a bumpkin? Levinson tries to explain this away by surrounding Dobbs with the likes of Christopher Walken and Lewis Black playing his longtime handlers. These sharpsters recognize that politics and show business are twins – not exactly the most novel of revelations.

There's a moral dilemma at the heart of "Man of the Year" that might have been worth exploring. If Dobbs is easily the best man for the job but didn't win fairly, is it wrong for him to step down if no one knows what really happened? Levinson skirts the issue by making Dobbs pathetically unambitious and by making the other candidates such nonentities. If Dobbs was up against a genuinely corrosive incumbent, the movie might have been about something. Instead, it peters out its own premise. It's as if Dobbs himself made the movie.

It's also a bit much to expect us to bask in the film's tone of moral uplift when Chris Matthews, James Carville, and Catherine Crier play themselves. Don't they realize that their credibility is on thin ice when they trade their image for a Hollywood close-up? As "Man of the Year" demonstrates, credibility isn't what it used to be. Grade: C

Rated PG-13 for language including some crude sexual references, drug related material, and brief violence.

Sex/Nudity: 11 scenes of innuendo. Violence: 3 scenes. Profanity: 23 expressions. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 4 scenes with smoking; 6 scenes of drinking.

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