The 2006 comedy Man of the Year is a difficult film to review. Some of that is because it’s not that interesting of a film. It’s simplistic and predictable. In fact, the only reason that I’m reviewing this film for Shattered Politics is because I needed an example of a bad, mainstream political film.
However, that’s not the only reason why it’s difficult to write about Man of the Year. The bigger reason is that Man Of The Year stars Robin Williams and, in many ways, it’s typical of one of his later lesser films. After his tragic death, it’s even harder to watch Robin Williams waste his talents in a bad film.
And, make no mistake about it, Man of the Year is a bad film.
Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs. Dobbs, we are told, is the most famous political commentator in America. Watching the film, it’s obvious that Dobbs is meant to be the film’s equivalent of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. However, the difference is that Stewart and Colbert are both obviously liberal whereas, from what little we see of Tom Dobbs show, Dobbs doesn’t appear to have any positions beyond the few vague platitudes that pass for political thinking in most mainstream films. Dobbs is against special interests. He’s against career politicians. He’s against … well, he’s against everything that most people are against and for everything that most people are for. About the closest that Tom Dobbs come to being edgy is when he makes a stupid joke about Pope Benedict being German.
Anyway, Dobbs is recruited to run for President and he manages to get on the ballot in 13 states! And he’s even doing well because, apparently in this film’s version of reality, Catholic voters have no problem supporting someone who makes fun of Pope Benedict for being German. And he’s even invited to take part in a presidential debate. When asked his first question in the debate, Dobbs starts talking and, because he’s being played by Robin Williams, he doesn’t stop. The debate spirals out-of-control. Dobbs goes on and on about the state of America, all the while assuming weird accents and slipping in and out of different personalities.
“Oh my God,” I thought, “he’s had a nervous breakdown.”
Except, of course, he hasn’t. And, since this is a movie, everyone in America loves his performance. On election night, Tom Dobbs apparently wins all 13 of his states and he’s elected President!
Except, of course, he hasn’t been. It turns out there was an error with the voting machines. Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), who works at the company that built the machines, figures out what happened. In order to keep her from revealing the truth, the company drugs her and attempts to destroy her credibility and…
Wait, this is a Robin Williams comedy, isn’t it? Well, it is and it isn’t. Half of the film is devoted to Tom Dobbs saying things that are supposed to be funny but the other half deals with Eleanor trying to expose a giant cover-up without getting killed. Director Barry Levinson can’t seem to figure out whether his film is supposed to be an unfunny comedy or a boring drama. So, he tries to do both and … well, taken by that criteria, the film actually works. If Levinson set out to be unfunny and boring, he succeeded.
One of the biggest dangers of making a film about a comedian is that, for the film to work, you have to believe that people would actually find the comedian to be funny. When the jokes aren’t funny, it doesn’t matter how many reaction shots of people laughing that you stuff into the film. Man of the Year is full of reaction shots. During the debate, we continually see Eleanor’s teenage son laughing. (How many teenagers, other than the weird ones and the ones assigned to do so for homework, actually watch a presidential debate?) During one particularly painful moment, Tom starts rambling while traveling on the campaign bus and we are subjected to countless reaction shots of Christopher Walken and Lewis Black laughing so hard that they look like they might faint from exhaustion.
The problem is that it’s rare that a few hundred people will all start laughing and stop laughing at the exact same time. Whenever you listen to a truly good comedian, you always hear a few giggles that indicate that at least a few audience members are still thinking about the last joke or else that they’re anticipating the next joke. Often times, when a comedian says something especially funny or unexpected, you don’t even hear laughter. You might hear a gasp of shock. You might hear tittering. You might hear applause. You might hear someone shouting like they’re at a sporting event.
What I’m saying is that everyone reacts to humor in their own individual way. Everyone has a laugh of their very own. Uniform laughter, like the laughter in Man of the Year, sounds fake because it is fake.
Add to that, nothing that Tom Dobbs says is particularly funny.