Monday, December 11, 2006

Man of the Year (Movie Review)

Whenever we stay in motels, my daughter's always considered it a treat to be able to order one of the pay per view movies from the motel's satellite system. If you don't know the drill, for about ten dollars you can choose to watch a movie that's not quite yet been released on DVD. You select the movie with the arrows on your remote control which invariably has run-down batteries and then spend the rest of your stay worrying that you got charged for too many movies because you pressed the button too many times.

For some reason, two of the staples of hotel movie systems seem to be Hugh Grant and Robin Williams, two actors I've begun to avoid in our rare ventures to the movie theater and even on DVD. As one friend of mine summed it up, "Can you name a Robin Williams movie that was actually unreservedly good?"

There may be, but I couldn't think of one on the spot. fwiw, I think his best role was as the jin in Aladdin with Good Will Hunting being his best role in which he didn't play some variation on a stand up comedian.

Barry Levinson directed one of Robin Williams's more successful movies, Good Morning Vietnam, which not quite seamlessly blended Williams manic stand up style into an earnest "Vietnam was a mess" screenplay. Williams was nominated for a best actor academy award for the role. (He's been nominated 3 times for best actor and won best supporting actor for Good Will Hunting). Man of the Year is their second venture together and attempts a similar mix though this time instead of the military and Vietnam, which would btw have been riper topics, this one takes on the comedification of the news and the perils of voting machines.

Many critics insisted that Levinson worked well with Williams in Good Morning Vietnam because Levinson's own roots are in standup comedy. There's little doubt that the thirty minutes of routines worked into the script work quite well on their own. Williams plays a John Stewart/Bill Maher type political tv comic who jokes about then decides to run for the presidency on a "something must change" platform.

This gives Williams plenty of opportunities to do his manic riff schtick throughout the film which is at its best when Williams gets to do monologues particularly in a "won't stop talking sequence" in the midst of a presidential debate that allegedly makes his candidacy viable.

The tenuous relationship between media and reality is one of Levinson who produced, directed, and wrote the movie's favorite themes. Because of this, it begs comparison to Levinson's other "political-statement" movie Wag the Dog which was something of an inverted version of the Peter Sellers' vehicle The Mouse that Roared. Levinson actually did a subtler take on this theme in Avalon, perhaps his best movie, which traces the degeneration of family life with the increasing prominence of the television as a fixture in the living room. fwiw, Levinson's Baltimore movies starting with Diner tend to be much more personal and heartfelt than his more thematic statement-oriented movies e.g. Rainman-autism, Sleepers-the juvenile system and child abuse, Bugsy-organized crime.

The problem in Levinson's non-Baltimore movies tends to be that the characters too often serve as "ideas" rather than fully-dimensional characters. Man of the Year is no exception. One result is that even in Rainman, the emotional scenes come off as more designed than felt. In Wag the Dog, the cast which included heavyweights like Dustin Hoffman, Rober Deniro, and Bill Macy were totally overshadowed by the plot. Imagine how much flatter it gets when you have a similar formula but trade that cast for Robin Williams, Laura Linney (who I think of as a great actress fwiw), and Christopher Walken. For someone who seldom writes great characters outside Baltimore, Levinson has a knack for assembling A list casts.

It's actually quite possible to make a movie of ideas in which the characters are secondary. Costa Gravas's Z comes to mind as does the Battle of Algiers. Levinson however doesn't manage it for a variety of reasons. Man of the Year has an ADD quality in that it forces two plots together. There's the story of the comedian managing to get elected because Americans now thoroughly can't tell the difference between entertainment and news. If the viewer doesn't happen to get it, Williams and his "crew" are given all sorts of pithy lines to comment on the "State" of things. In particular, Walken plays a wheelchair bound manager/campaign-manager named "Menken" whose main function is to repeatedly compare politics to show business. The dual name drop of H.L. Mencken, the old time political commentator and the mini-homage to Dr. Strangelove don't dignify Levinson's movie as much as they remind the viewer that this movie's insights don't reach those levels. Worse yet Williams dons a wig to play George Washington for his address to Congress and this homage to Mrs. Doubtfire just serves as a reminder that even Williams has been in better movies.

The other plot is built around Laura Linney, as the honest emplolyee of the dishonest voting machine company who does things like watch Frank Capra movies while trying to decide whether she should step forward to save democracy from corporate greed in the form of Jeff Goldblum who for some reason signed on to a role where he has nothing to do but act heartless. Linney is normally excellent, but in this movie she's trapped between a faux thriller and romantic comedy. She thus spends most of the film just looking anxious and frustrated.

I have no idea why Levinson didn't choose to concentrate on one "story", but he attempts to bridge the two with an utterly non-credible and chemistry free relationship between Williams and Linney.

As someone who's actually sympathetic to Levinson's message in this movie, the thing that's most unforgiveable is its lack of political heart. The reason other Politics over character movies work is that Costa Gravas was making a sardonic statement about the destruction of democracy in Greece and Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers still remains the definitive movie statement about terrorism because he was willing to see both sides of the question and had real insights. In both cases, the directors were serious about the political statement made by the movie.

Wtih Levinson, the level of insight is embarrassingly shallow. At one point, Williams asks his audience "Do you think our schools are working?" and I can swear there are lines like "We go to war way too easily." Levinson even avoids taking a side by making Williams character pointedly neither a democrat nor a republican. I'm not sure though that the Platitudacrats have anything to offer either.

This could have been a much better movie if Levinson had shown more political guts and made the political commentary more pointed. If, however, you like Robin Williams's standup rants, this one is at least watchable for those but that's it.

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At 12/14/2006 08:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm an allegory girl -- thinking it's more fun to quaff ideas in quasi-character form (Gulliver & Paradise Lost et many) than to have to groan through terrifiedly abstract and abstruse Kant, say. (It's as if if you slid into metaphor, fable, story to illuminate something, you'd lose your Modern & Rational Cred.)

I'm such a philosophy nut, I'll do the Kant medicine, but one of my cause hilariens is to get funny and story back into philosophy/psychology/politics (only ever falsely separated).

I haven't seen this movie, but am not against personification on principle. Aesop knew that fables were easier to remember than Kantian tomes. Story tellers could remember a whole Iliad. In fact, no character on the page or screen is ever more than a brush-stroke or two. The complications of a 'real' person are too kaleidoscopic to really display.

Anyhow, it may be a lousy movie, but its stereotyping wouldn't bother me. Gods know that everyone in the sublime Strangelove was just an ingenious caricature.

(Nor would I per se blame a movie for the anorexic and shrill Ms. Linney. Tho I've never warmed to Auschwitz chic. It's hard to explain to those who've never made tv or movies just how morbidly thin a woman like Linney really is off the screen.)

At 12/15/2006 09:07:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
I agree with you and did think the problem with Man of the Year was the shallowness of the ideas themselves. That may have been on purpose to show just how dangerous it would be to have "entertainers" setting policy and doing things they know nothing about at a technical level. Still, it seemed to oddly lack political convictions for a political movie.

At 12/15/2006 09:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

cl, I can't imagine any entertainer except maybe Mel Gibson actually doing worse or being more dangerous than the Grade C son of an ex-president...

At 12/17/2006 10:31:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

The way things were going, I was beginning to think that Mel Gibson was going to be the next Republican senator from California.

At 12/18/2006 04:37:00 PM, Blogger None said...

haha.. we may be crazy but we're not that crazy (I Hope).

At 12/18/2006 04:58:00 PM, Blogger inkyhack said...

Robin Williams was in at least one really good movie - "The Fisher King" by Terry Gilliam. Brilliant film and Williams does an excellent job in it.

I also really liked "Good Will Hunting" as well as "Awakenings."

At 12/19/2006 10:45:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I'm not sure it's that big a jump from the Terminator to Lethal Mouthful 4. Arnold is probably a little more careful than Mel, but nothing is out of the realm of possiblity.


I'm not as big a fan of the Fisher King, but yes I do think Williams was good in Good Will Hunting and as Oliver Sacks (both characters were weight lifters for some reason though I'm not sure that made it into Awakenings).

I still think my friend was right in general, though there are clearly exceptions, but he's made a lot of bad movie choices.

At 2/25/2011 03:38:00 AM, Blogger Neetu said...

Before watching this movie I thought I should read some review about it first so as to know what kind of movie it is. From your description I am not actually convinced and left the idea.
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