Man of the Year is the story of Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams), a late-night comedian who specializes in political commentary. Think Jon Stewart or Bill Maher. Early in a presidential political campaign in a galaxy far, far away where a Democrat is running for re-election, Tom's fans encourage him to go for the White House himself. At first, Dobbs takes up the race in the joking way Pat Paulsen did in 1968, keeping his campaign in the studio and studiously satirical. But then Dobbs' fans get him on the ballot in 13 states with enough electoral votes to make him president if he can sweep them. Levinson doesn't emphasize this at all, but the picture clearly wonders about an electoral process in which the nation's leader could be chosen without even offering himself as a candidate in 37 states. Think back to 1992. What if Ross Perot hadn't self-destructed? It's hardly inconceivable that he could have eked out wins in these 13 states with less than 40 percent of the vote in each.
In the meantime, while Dobbs is trying to find a stump persona that capitalizes on his celebrity appeal without making his campaign seem like a publicity stunt, problems are brewing at Delacroy Electronics, the technology corporation with the new national voting machines contract. As the company is preparing to greenlight its highly profitable product, project director Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) runs a test and discovers a glitch. The machines stubbornly announce a winner different from the candidate with the most votes. When Eleanor tries to report this to her boss, she's confronted by menacing corporate attorney Alan Stewart (Jeff Goldblum), who gives her a lecture at once hilarious and terrifying about the American democratic process. Delacroy's faulty voting machines and their lack of a verifiable paper trail are deliberately meant to invoke the Diebold machines used in Ohio in 2004, where exits polls proved so out of synch with official electronic tallies that gave the state and the presidency to George W. Bush.
Levinson might easily have structured his film as an attack on the current Republican administration, but that's not his target. The nation in which Tom Dobbs runs for president is not at war in Iraq or, apparently, anywhere. Levinson's concerns are more universal than immediate. He's worried about the electoral process. Thus he takes swipes at campaign financing and the influence of special interests that can afford to buy attention from candidates who need their contributions to win elections. He also pokes fun at the predominant commit-no-error campaign style that renders contemporary elections so bland, frustrating and boring. Dobbs is a breath of fresh air because he says what he thinks and clearly announces what he plans to do. He doesn't try to split hairs and obfuscate positions that might cost him votes.
Not all of this works. Christopher Walken as Dobbs' manager and campaign chief Jack Menken narrates Dobbs' rise to national prominence as if nobody had ever heard of him, a kind of narrative oxymoron. Eleanor's success at getting her voting machine story directly to Dobbs is one of those preposterous developments we accept in the simple recognition that otherwise we'd have no movie. Elsewhere, evidently worried that he hasn't outfitted Dobbs with the best comic material, Levinson swishes his camera and edits with flash cuts in order to hype Dobbs' stand-up performances. The strategy reminded me of director David Seltzer's futile efforts to make Tom Hanks and Sally Field seem funny in Punchline. But the comedy in Man of the Year is actually better than Levinson presumably feared, in significant part, no doubt, because Williams is a genius who could make you laugh by reading the phone book.
In the end, though, Man of the Year is considerably more than a comedy. It's an odd and oddly satisfying amalgam that fits neatly into no movie category. It provides my old friend Lewis Black, as Dobbs' head writer, an opportunity to demonstrate that he can act as well as knock me off the couch with his own white-hot political comedy. As Eleanor tries to elude the clutches of company thugs, it delivers passages as chilling as those in any thriller. And in the end, it plays to America's common sense and instincts for fair play with as much naked sincerity as Frank Capra sending Jimmy Stewart against the political titans in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.