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MOVIE REVIEW : A Candidate for Our Times

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Meet Bob Roberts, self-styled “rebel conservative,” revered by his followers, and they are many, as “a living tribute to the possibilities of the American dream.” Smooth, wealthy, charismatic and definitely not “one of those liberals who makes you feel guilty about what’s gone wrong.” Quite the contrary. “Why can’t you get ahead?” he asks, passion in his voice. “Why has your American dream been relegated to the ashcan of history?”

Tim Robbins, the writer, director and star of “Bob Roberts” (selected theaters), a shrewd and scathingly funny piece of pointed political satire, did not have to invent his title character. Rather, like the resourceful Dr. Frankenstein, he constructed this well-packaged Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate out of the odds and ends of the current American political scene. And whether we find Our Bob appealing or anathema, it is a measure of Robbins’ exceptional success that no one can doubt how seductive a candidate like this would be in an election near you.

Though the idea of a singer turned dangerously crowd-pleasing politician can be traced back to 1957’s Andy Griffith-starring “A Face in the Crowd” through the kicky “Wild in the Streets,” Robbins, in his directing debut, has made equal use of two more unexpected inspirations: D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary on Bob Dylan, “Don’t Look Back,” and that cleverest of mock rock docs, “This Is Spinal Tap.”

Because what “Bob Roberts” purports to be is a documentary by one Terry Manchester, a rumpled, tweedy BBC type who has been given a certain amount of access to Roberts’ carefully controlled 1990 campaign for a Pennsylvania senatorial seat. Manchester gets to interview the principals and hang out in the public parts of the campaign, but it is one of Robbins’ conceits that, as in real life, backroom stuff is off-limits. What you see is what you vote for.

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What we see is a candidate who completely understands the importance of image, who starts each morning off fencing in a photogenic all-white suit and then tools around the state in a bus called Pride, an equally photogenic wife conveniently in tow. A politician who is glib and calculated enough to withstand any questions, even those posed by a dogged reporter named Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito) who puts out a muckraking journal called Troubled Times.

Counseled by the coldly cynical ex-CIA operative Lukas Hart III (Alan Rickman, over the edge one more time), Roberts’ combination of positive moral uplift and negative campaigning befuddles and exasperates his opponent, incumbent Sen. Brickley Paiste, a tubby, bowtie-wearing, card-carrying liberal of the old school (very drolly portrayed by writer Gore Vidal).

The first glimpse we get of Roberts is as he walks onstage for one of his campaign stops/concerts. Age 35, a Yale graduate worth $40 million because of shrewd financial wheeling and dealing, he is best known as a singer-songwriter, and one of Robbins’ sliest conceits is to package him like Bob Dylan, down to a look-alike album cover and a video, “Wall Street Rap,” that echoes what Dylan and Pennebaker did in filming “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Though Spin magazine has labeled him “a crypto-Fascist clown,” Roberts’ music is intended for another, more disaffected audience. With titles like “Retake America,” “This Land Was Made for Me” and the heavily ironic “I’m a Bleeding Heart” (as in “Let’s give something to lazy people in the slums, I’m a bleeding heart”), his songs so adroitly underscore the Me-First agenda of the politics of greed that Robbins, who wrote them all with his musician brother David, had it put in his contract that there would be no soundtrack album.

What makes these songs so special is their skewered familiarity, how close they come to the reality of the political marketplace. Like so much of “Bob Roberts,” they are just one acid step removed from actuality, close enough for us to shake our heads at the similarity as Robbins’ biting points about the corruptness of current electoral politics fully sink in.

And even though his own politics are in direct opposition to his character’s, Robbins the actor has refused to shortchange his man, making him someone we can’t take our eyes off, no matter what we think of his point of view, someone who, exactly like so many politicians, becomes more unknowable and opaque the more we see of him.

And with the possible exception of Esposito as the renegade journalist, who sometimes seems to be in a different movie, Robbins has also cast “Bob Roberts” quite well, and even found amusing cameos for acting buddies like James Spader, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed and Susan Sarandon, all of whom play airheaded TV newscasters with names like Tawna Titan and Rock Bork.

Audacious, bracing, uncommonly timely, “Bob Roberts” (unaccountably rated R for “momentary language”) would seem almost impossible to pull off. So it is very much to Robbins’ credit as a filmmaker that he manages to do so while rarely getting preachy and never neglecting the importance of movement and excitement in keeping an audience involved.

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Though Bob Roberts is a Republican, it is clearly the entire system that his creator is angriest at, the tottering shell of a process that makes it possible for a parody, no matter what his or her political orientation, to contest a major election. The strongest message this impassioned film delivers is the last thing seen on the screen, a single word written in large bold letters. VOTE is what it reads, and Tim Robbins clearly means it.

‘Bob Roberts’

Tim Robbins: Bob Roberts

Giancarlo Esposito: Bugs Raplin

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Ray Wise: Chet MacGregor

Alan Rickman: Lukas Hart III

Brian Murray: Terry Manchester

Gore Vidal: Senator Brickley Paiste

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A Polygram and Working Title production, released by Mirimax and Paramount Pictures. Director Tim Robbins. Producer Forest Murray. Executive producers Ronna Wallace, Paul Webster, Tim Bevan. Screenplay Tim Robbins. Cinematographer Jean Lepine. Editor Lisa Churgin. Costumes Bridget Kelly. Music David Robbins. Production design Richard Hoover. Art director Gary Kosko. Set decorator Brian Kasch. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (momentary language).


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