Robin Williams, Under Control

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Comedian-turned-candidate Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) speaks to a star-struck public in Man of the Year, the comic tale of an entertainer's accidental rise to power.

Robin Williams is a dangerous guy. Or maybe he and the people who make his movies just think he’s a dangerous guy. There is an unwillingness to just let him rear back and spritz for the length of a movie — as if they fear we, in the audience, will grow tired of his gift, often amounting a form of genius, for surrealistic free-association. They are always giving us, as writer-director Barry Levinson does in Man of the Year, tastes and tidbits of Williams in full cry, the while looking for calming cutaways, subplots and diversions that will permit us respite from his mania. All too often this material is sanctimonious and sentimental, humanistic drivel, and doing it Williams often seems shifty, looking for love in all the wrong places.

Levinson, for whom Williams did a memorable turn in Good Morning, Vietnam almost 20 years ago, does not make that mistake in their new film; Williams is no worse than agreeable when he’s not being flat-out funny. In Man of the Year Williams plays a cable show comedian named Tom Dobbs — sort of a Jon Stewart on speed — spouting liberal-minded socio-political criticism. One of his fans proposes that he run for President, and before you know it he’s on the ballot in enough battleground states to pose a threat to the establishment candidates. He devastates them in a televised debate and wins the election.

Or does he? Levinson imagines this as the first election in which votes are counted electronically by machines manufactured by Delacroy Voting Systems, one of whose employees (Laura Linney) detects a glitch in the system, proving that Dobbs ran well, but not victoriously. Next thing you know, she’s on the run from her bosses, who will stop at nothing to silence her, and into Dobbs’s arms. At which point a promising political comedy turns into a somewhat less engaging political thriller. Delacroy’s evil chief counsel (Jeff Goldblum) will stop at nothin — including murder — to prevent her from destroying their business.

This is a disappointment on two counts. For one thing, I’m not at all certain that Williams is a performer whose highest gifts need to be doled out in small doses. Back when he was doing stand-up in solo TV appearances I never found him tiresome. Those appearances often had the quality of a high wire act; they fascinated us precisely because of his tireless talent to entertain, to keep going beyond the point at which most comedians wear out their welcome. Or simply fall to earth. In those days you felt a need to answer his bravery with a little bit of your own, to stick with his slips, slides and stumbles, pretty sure that, in the end, he would right himself. Williams is not necessarily a figure who needs the relief of, say, a romantic interlude to fully ingratiate himself with us. And we don’t need a suspenseful diversion that allows us to catch our breath. He’s essentially a guy who does a single that you must either buy completely or reject totally.

Our other disappointment lies with Levinson. He is, after all, the auteur of the wonderfully savage Wag the Dog, which much more successfully combined the thriller style with outrageously funny political satire. It’s OK for him to be angry with the machinations of corporate America, to suspect that it will stop at nothing to protect its interests. But there is something routine about his paranoia here, something that belongs in a different film. He has a great topic in Man of the Year — a smart and unlikely Everyman , an outsider used to speaking truth to power, who now has power to speak populist truth (and disgust) to the powerless, focusing their inchoate needs and longings from the bully presidential pulpit. Instead, he’s given us an awkward mix of standard genres that doesn’t give us what we desperately need in this increasingly desperate political season — a black and snarling assault on our imbecile status quo. Man of the Year is a watchable film, but it — and its star — might have done so much more.