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The Big Movie: 'Man of the Year' (PG-13)

Weekend!Movies: Williams clowns up Oval Office
by: ©2006 UNIVERSAL PICTURES, The White House gets wagged in Barry Levinson’s latest, with Robin Williams (left) as a comedian turned candidate turned president  and comedian Lewis Black as his head writer.

We elect jokes to public office on a regular basis, so why not make a comedian president? If such a thing were to happen, we can only hope it would turn out better than the film Barry Levinson has made about it.

In 1997, Levinson did a nifty little satire called 'Wag the Dog,' about a phony war designed to distract the public from a failing presidency. His new one, 'Man of the Year,' may be more doggish than waggish, and distressingly without bite.

Robin Williams stars as Tom Dobbs, host of a 'Daily Show' type comedy program, who becomes a surprise third-party candidate for the presidency, then a surprising and surprised victor. But did he really win? Or was his victory the result of a glitch in the nation's new computerized voting system?

Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), an employee of the corporation that created the system, suspects it was a flaw she already had warned her bosses about - and which her bosses warned her not to talk about. And her bosses will do more than warn if they feel their financial fortunes threatened.

And so what seems at first to be a bit of political whimsy veers into the realm of paranoia thriller. From there, it whiplashes so crazily back and forth between comedy and suspense that theaters may want to keep a chiropractor on hand.

Throw in a confoundingly unlikely Dobbs-Green romance and a cautionary antismoking subplot involving Dobbs' manager (Christopher Walken), and you've got …

Well, you're likely to have an audience agreeing with Walken as he watches his client on TV and asks, 'Where's he going with this?' Levinson, who also wrote the script, creates such tonal chaos that his star appears lost.

Williams in zany mode triumphed over the wobbly tone in Levinson's 'Good Morning, Vietnam,' but here he seems stranded between his familiar wackiness and his more recent serious bent. He's so cautious you'd think he actually was running for office.

That leaves Linney, so convincing she threatens to burn the rest of the film down around her, to share the remains with the always captivating Walken. And Levinson reviews his own movie when he has Walken quote Mark Twain's observation that 'the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to be credible.'

Levinson might have been better off re-releasing 'Wag the Dog' as a documentary.

- Pat Holmes

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