What if a television celebrity ran for president ...and won? That's the central joke in a new comedy starring Robin Williams; but the movie, written and directed by Barry Levinson, also takes some jabs at very current issues in American politics. Alan Silverman has a look at Man of the Year.
It starts as a whimsical idea on the topical TV talk show hosted by comic Tom Dobbs, played by Robin Williams: an independent candidacy with no chance of winning, but an opportunity to get popular issues into the national political dialog.
Improbably, thanks to a glitch in the programming of computerized voting machines, he is declared the winner.
The Tom Dobbs character joins a Hollywood tradition of portraying politicians who are bold enough to say what people on the street are actually thinking. Robin Williams, doing his spot-on Jimmy Stewart impersonation, draws the line back to the 1939 Frank Capra fable Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.
"Yeah, it goes back to that, you see. Don't you see what they're doing to you? Don't you see? It's the same idea as 'Mr. Smith,'" Williams says. " It's hopeful ...it's hoping for a bit of honesty. That's what this is about: a certain amount of honesty."
Slipping back into his 'normal' voice, Williams says he believes there is a longing for people in politics who do not speak or act like politicians.
"I long for someone who would speak so directly, " Williams says, "but with all the 'spin doctors' ...you know, a spin doctor is just a publicist with more money ... I, for one, think it would be wonderful if someone spoke that directly and just from themselves; and there is someone out there who will. They come and they start speaking like that ...and then they get to Washington and of a sudden they change. They get to the Hill and, all of a sudden, you've got to play the game. Both parties are guilty of this sound bite, Short Attention-span Politics: SAP."
Writer-director Barry Levinson, whose films include the 1997 political satire Wag the Dog, says it is important to this story that the central character and his message be non-partisan.
"If you had it as a Democrat or a Republican, then the movie is either slanted to one side or the other," notes Levinson. " My feeling is that the movie is functioning about Democrats or Republicans. It is saying there are problems in the system that have to be addressed. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, there are other issues. So if I had Robin as a Democrat or a Republican, then suddenly you're mired in a political place where you don't need to be ...and that wasn't the point of the movie."
Christopher Walken co-stars as the unlikely candidate's mentor and manager; and the cast also includes topical comedian Lewis Black as a speechwriter and political advisor.
"I'm between Robin Williams and Christopher Walken, so the set was really fun," he says. "People (complain about) that sitting around and stuff. Well, that sitting around with fun people is like being on vacation. It's great. You're improvising with Christopher Walken. It's like going to heaven. You don't have to do anything. People go 'boy, you're really good in that movie' and all I can think is 'what was good? I listened. I've got him talking and him talking ...who is not going to listen.' It was spectacular. But I look good listening."
With its irreverence, film maker Levinson hopes Man of the Year provokes both laughter and discussion.
"If we can't ultimately have people and representation that we are excited about, then where are we going? At some point there has to be some type of change ...and the movie deals with it in an entertaining fashion because I'm not out there 'on the stump' trying to enact change. No movie can do that; but you can still put ideas on the table and have entertainment at the same time," he says.
Man of the Year also features Laura Linney as a computer analyst who discovers the programming bug that changes the election result; Jeff Goldblum plays the manipulative software developer who wants to cover up the mistake that causes the fraudulent count. A number of real politicians and entertainers have cameos in the film as themselves.