'Man of the Year'

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Acting like a man who isn't sure he wants to be funny anymore, Robin Williams plays a man who isn't sure he wants to be funny anymore in "Man of the Year."

Writer-director Barry Levinson's dispiriting oddball of a project features all sorts of people you'd love to watch in a really good Levinson film, from Laura Linney to Christopher Walken to Jeff Goldblum to Lewis Black, the latter in the role of a television writer. But what does it say when the best gag in a movie about contemporary politics and voter cynicism concerns the TV show "JAG"? It says, I think, that Levinson is nervous about muddying his mainstream effort with anything touchy. The result is a mild comic romance akin to "The American President" yoked to a '70s paranoia-inducing thriller hearkening back to "The Parallax View."

With a jaw that never seems to unclench, Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-y TV star fed up with the fictional and allegedly indistinguishable Democratic and Republican presidential candidates of the moment. Dobbs runs for office as an independent, and before you can say "Frank Capra," he wins. The victory, however, is the result of massive electronic voting error, spotted only by Eleanor (Linney), a software analyst employed by the weaselly Diebold-like company behind the screw-up.

Sensing a crisis, the corporate slimeballs menace Linney, shoot her full of drugs and improvise a cover-up. This is where "Man of the Year" gets all 1975 on us, to highly unstable effect. Linney does the best she can with the film's grisliest misjudgment, a scene in which the doped-up Eleanor implodes at the company cafeteria. It's as if a reel from "Three Days of the Condor" had somehow interpolated its way into the wrong film.

Dobbs is meant to be a populist entertainer with some teeth, launched into a terrifying orbit of influence. It's a fine idea for a comedy. But Levinson is very vague when it comes to his targets. Dobbs rails against "special-interest groups" and shouts about the need to "shake up" the "political system." It's not enough; Dobbs is not a fully formed character. Once Eleanor goes on the lam and decides to trust Dobbs with the truth, "Man of the Year" falls apart in the logic department. Such a big, insidious corporation, and it takes the mean ones forever to find one ex-employee? How is it that the president-elect can come and go wherever he pleases without any media scrutiny, whether at a birthday party for his ailing manager (Walken, in Swifty Lazar's old specs) or in the woods for an afternoon of paintball?

"Wag the Dog," Levinson's astute and craftsmanly political satire, seems a long way from here. And "Diner," one of the great American films of the '80s, seems like a distant relative from another planet. Levinson has written and directed in many genres. But rarely has he made a film as indecisive and diffident as "Man of the Year."

mjphillips@tribune.com

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language including some crude sexual references, drug-related material and brief violence).Written and directed by Barry Levinson; cinematography by Dick Pope; edited by Steven Weisberg and Blair Daily; production design by Stefania Cella; music by Graeme Revell; produced by James G. Robinson and David Robinson. A Universal release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:56.

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