Barry Levinson hasn't made a movie of note in almost a decade—since 1997's Wag the Dog, to be precise, and even that was less a work of substantial relevance than a bit of lucky timing based on someone else's better novel. Even after Envy, Sphere, Liberty Heights, and Bandits, Levinson's return to the political realm is no heroic comeback (though it is better than the trailer makes it appear). Buried beneath its pale satiric surface is a not-bad idea—what would happen if an outsider candidate, a TV comedian played by Robin Williams with considerable restraint, became a White House insider—but Levinson's too distracted to make any kind of point. He loses his movie, his audience, and his purpose in a tangle of conspiracy theories and crackpot notions that sink the movie just when it begins to transcend expectations.
Feel free to walk out when Laura Linney shows, about 12 minutes in. Her arrival as a worker at a dirty voting- machine manufacturing company throws the movie out of whack. From here, we're never quite sure what the movie's supposed to be about: the absurdity of the election process or the corruption of politics by moneymen. Either one's a no-brainer gimme. Levinson's hardly the white-knight satirist the left's been waiting for. But at least pick an idea and stick with it.
Williams' Tom Dobbs, the comic-turned-candidate, is meant to be an amalgam of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher—both of whom exist in this movie's universe, which makes the casting of The Daily Show commentator Lewis Black as Dobb's gag writer more than a bit befuddling. But he's neither incisive nor a bit funny—more a softball comic like Jay Leno. Worse, as a tepid, earnest campaigner, he's like Michael Dukakis, much to the chagrin of his manager (Christopher Walken, doing Christopher Walken). But during a televised debate, as the Republican and Democratic candidates keep smiling at each other, he cuts on a protracted rant that proves he's indeed an alternative candidate. Which brings us back to Linney's character's employers and a certain computer glitch.
Had Levinson chosen to make, say, Mr. Dobbs Goes to Washington rather than venture into Parallax View terrain, maybe Man would have been tolerable. Levinson's idea of a radical position is that all politicians say the same thing, which is nothing at all, much like the Man of the Year himself. ROBERT WILONSKY