Monday, October 23, 2006

Man of the Year (Dr. Worm)

They should've listened to Christopher Walken.

In Man of the Year, Walken plays Jack Menken, manager to Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams), the late-night comedian turned presidential candidate. There are two things that Walken says to Williams in Man of the Year that could have saved this movie, if only the filmmakers had bothered to listen.

The first piece of advice is so important that Walken's character actually says it more than once. When Dobbs starts acting all serious on the campaign trail, his manager wisely tells him (on more than one occassion) that people come to see him because he's Tom Dobbs the comedian. They've come to laugh, not to be bored with your speeches about policy. There's nothing worse than being promised comedy and getting something else.

Sound advice. For example, it would be unfair to an audience to package a movie as a comedy when it's really a half-baked political-intrigue thriller with a couple of amusing quips thrown in. People would be disappointed, right? I mean, they came because they wanted to laugh.

But even so, that alone doesn't sink Man of the Year. I mean, if you were promised Naked Gun and ended up having to watch Casablanca, you might be disappointed and you might feel misled, but you would still have to admit that you saw a good movie.

But Man of the Year was not a good movie, largely due to the fact that it didn't pay attention to Walken's second nugget of wisdom. Quoting Mark Twain, Walken's character says: "The only difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to be credible." If the people behind Man of the Year had heeded this advice, they probably would have tried a bit harder to make the film even remotely believable.

What's so unbelievable, you ask? Well, let's dissect the plot. (I'd throw in a spoiler warning here, but that really assumes the presence of something to spoil.) If you saw any previews--which you probably did--you got the basic idea: Robin Williams' Jon-Stewart-like character runs for president. And that's a really interesting premise. Would America's "hero worship" of some of these television personalities lead them to elect one as their leader? And if they did, what would happen?

Unfortunately, we don't get to find out. Tom Dobbs doesn't really get elected by the people, which is sort of like the movie cutting off its own foot. If the people didn't elect him, haven't you ceased making a comment on American society?

Apparently, the filmmakers thought the idea that a comedian could win the presidency too unbelievable--despite the fact that that in the past 10 years a former pro wrestler and a former bodybuilder have won separate gubernatorial elections, and despite the fact that this is presumably (according to the ads, anyway) the entire thesis of the movie.

Apparently not. Here's the real story: In time for the (whatever year it is in the movie) election, the country has decided to adopt an entirely computerized voting system, a seemingly sound idea after the Florida snafu of 2000. But there's a problem with the system, which the hard-working-but-lonely Laura Linney discovers. (Does anyone do hard-working-but-lonely better than Laura Linney?) Linney's character works for Delacroy, the company that has made a fortune by providing all the voting machine software. Working late one night, she decides to test the system and finds that no matter what numbers she enters, the same candidate ends up winning.

I'll go ahead and spoil the fun for you now. There's nothing sinister about this at all. Delacroy isn't in cahoots with a candidate; they apparently just write crappy software. The big revelation is that these systems choose a winner not by counting votes and deciding who has the most. No, due to a software bug, the chosen winner is the candidate whose last-name double letters come first alphabetically. So Tom DoBBs beats candidates KeLLoGG and MiLLs.

Now, I'm not a computer programmer, so I'm talking over my head here. If any of you readers know more about this than me, feel free to correct me. But isn't it almost completely unthinkable that your simple counting program would somehow pay attention not to the numbers, but to the letters in a candidate's last name? And even if that's not the case, the idea that Delacroy didn't test their system even once--because that's the only way an error this glaring would slip through the cracks--certainly has to strain anyone's suspension of disbelief.

But this fact is what drives the plot, which ends up being less about Robin Williams and more about Laura Linney. Linney shares the problem with the Delacroy powers-that-be, who--led by Jeff Goldblum--tell her in no uncertain terms: "Admitting we have a problem will hurt our stock options, so shut up."

And the movie twists and turns from there, with Linney struggling to tell Williams the truth, and the Delacroy execs trying to shut her up. And that's the movie we're left with. Tom Dobbs and his political-humor-for-president campaign are just a backdrop to an exceedingly crappy movie about an election gone awry and the one girl who knows the truth.

And you know what? That really pisses me off. I'm a big fan of Jon Stewart, and I was interested to see a movie that purported to explore what would happen should he run for president and win. My biggest misgiving going into the movie was the choice of manic Robin Williams to play the relatively dry Jon Stewart character. But Williams actually did an okay job. He reined in his zaniness enough to play the part well enough. In fact, all the actors--and there were plenty of good ones--did a good enough job. But when the plot is as harebrained as Man of the Year's is, you sort of stop caring about whether the actors are convincing.

The movie does have its saving graces. In spite of all its flaws, the movie does manage to fit in a number of lines that elicit laughter. And it does manage to say something about Americans relating less to the politicians making the news and more to the comedians making fun of the news. But it also commits the cardinal sin of combining a really promising premise with a monumentally sucky plot. And for that, it will forever bear the shame of a rating of -10.

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