Say no to funnymen

By and

“Man of the Year”

Universal Pictures

Written and directed by Barry Levinson

Starring: Robin Williams, Christopher Walken, Laura Linney, Lewis Black and Jeff Goldblum

Rated PG-13/120 minutes

Opens Oct. 13, 2006

Two out of four stars

The presidential candidate played by Robin Williams in “Man of the Year” doesn’t actually win the presidency, but he comes frighteningly close. I say “frighteningly” because who in their right mind would want this man running our country? I know that’s sort of the joke, but even from a satirical point of view, this movie is a colossal misfire, headlined by a wrongly cast Williams.

He plays Tom Dobbs, host of a political comedy talk show very similar to Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” But whereas Stewart is wry and collected and allows his punch-lines to insinuate their sharp edges, Williams is all about rapid-fire delivery-any political barbs he spits have no time to sink in before he busts out the cabana boy impression.

There’s a scene at a presidential debate in which Williams breaks the format and pretty much does non-stop stand-up, interrupting his opponents and coming off nearly as badly as one of those raving loons who hands out fliers that accuse our government of conspiring with Martians.

In short, Tom Dobbs is very, very annoying. During that debate, as the commentator tried to shout him down, I kept wondering why the director up in the booth didn’t just cut Dobbs’ mike. It’s not like he was making any sense-he says nothing revolutionary, nothing that a dozen other political commentators haven’t already said-only more clearly and pointedly. Dobbs sounds like the typical, disgruntled, fed-up-with-the-system political critic. He’s not special. I was embarrassed for Dobbs, and yet, the audience at the debate gives him a standing ovation.

H’wuh?

Maybe instead of Williams, Barry Levinson, the writer and director, should have cast Jon Stewart. In fact, Stewart’s been swatting down rumors all week about his supposed interest in running for the Oval Office in 2008 with his dastardly, Comedy Central cohort, Stephen Colbert. Stewart would not make a good president, either, but I’d rather support him than Robin “Spas-O-Matic” Williams.

Of course, as I stated earlier, Williams’ character doesn’t even win the election. At least Levinson got that part right. The story’s main focus is on an electronic voting system named Delacroy and how a glitch in its programming makes it appear that Tom Dobbs has won the election when, in fact, he came in third. I’m not spoiling any surprises here-the movie is oddly structured-for in the first 10 minutes we meet the programmer (Laura Linney) who discovers the glitch and is promptly smeared by her bosses, who wish to cover up the problem.

This plot is unnecessary and uninteresting. I think Levinson realized he needed a sneaky way to get Dobbs to the White House because there’s no way he would have gotten there legitimately. The resulting controversy that erupts when the fired programmer, Eleanor, confronts her employers and Dobbs is unwieldy and unconvincing-especially when romance enters the picture.

“Man of the Year” is such a missed opportunity. Polls have shown that most youths get their news from the mouths of funnymen like Stewart, Colbert and (God forbid) Jay Leno. I have mixed feelings about that-on the one hand, humor is an effective way to get through to hip, young people who wouldn’t give a damn about current events any other way.

On the other hand, I get the feeling- based on the conversations I’ve overheard from my college classmates- that by stuffing important information into joke-sized packages, we understand the punch-lines, but not the underlying issues. Comedy should be a bridge to more serious discussion-not an end to it. Levinson would rather let Williams fly off the handle than tackle any real issues at stake here.