“You should know that this is a ‘Mommy and Me’ screening,” the cashier informed me when I asked for two tickets to the 11:00 a.m. show, meaning that most of the audience would be infants in strollers and their mothers.
Ordinarily that bit of information would have sent me galloping for the nearest exit, as I am the type whose movie-watching experience is shattered by so much as the audible crinkling of a candy wrapper, never mind the sound of an audience member talking during a movie or, God forbid, a baby crying. But since the movie in question was “Man of the Year,” starring Robin Williams, I realized that few, if any, bons mots would be sacrificed to the caterwauling of the newborns. If anything, a few screaming babies might actually enhance this particular cinematic experience.
For some years now, the American populace has been laboring under the considerable weight of two massive, seemingly intractable myths: that classroom size has any direct correlation to academic achievement in public schools, and that Robin Williams is funny. And while the former is gradually giving way to the mountains of evidence to the contrary, the latter shows remarkable resilience.
An incorrigible joke thief, Williams (who’s not actually a comedian in the sense that he painstakingly developed an act on the club circuit) is actually a trained dramatic actor who dabbles in comedy and has gone from borrowing material from legitimate comedians to using jokes so old that people can’t even remember who told them first. His late night talk show appearances consist of carefully written and rehearsed “improvs” mixed with Robin’s banal impressions of real impressionists, peppered with references that are, in some instances, decades old.
Like an inept father jangling car keys to distract a crying baby, Robin brings back a lagging audience by slipping into his trademark “fag” voice for a crack about hairdressers, or does his impression of how sassy black women speak, or jokes about lazy Mexicans or cheap Jews—jokes, which, in private conversation, would be considered rude, if not actual hate crimes. There’s never any coherent point of view to these televised outbursts. Instead, each appearance unfolds like a joyless parade of half-baked ideas and awkwardly topical references trotted out at such a desperately brisk pace that the illusion of humor is, at least intermittently, achieved.
As a comedic actor, Williams continues to star in one dreary, big-budget offering after another, each stubbornly billed and promoted as a comedy. The viewing public, as if on command, continues to buy tickets to each doomed spectacle in hopes that Robin might actually be funny again like he was in that one movie he made a long time ago … what was that called? So, naturally, when Barry Levinson wrote a movie about a guy who’s so funny that he becomes President, his first choice for the lead role was …Robin Williams. In other words, Carrot Top was not available or, more likely, he read the script for this turkey and passed.
Speaking of which, let me dispense with storyline of “Man of the Year,” so to speak, right now. Bear in mind that by reading this you’ll have probably spent more time thinking about the plot than Barry Levinson did when he wrote the movie. Here goes:
Robin plays Tom Dobbs, an affable cable TV talk show host. Think Jon Stewart, only older, fatter, hairier, hackier and never funny. On second thought, don’t think Jon Stewart. As a joke, and a stolen one at that, Tom decides to run for President. But Tom’s campaign gets off to a slow start, because instead of being funny, he insists on talking about “the issues,” which to him means rattling off aphorisms about the limitations of representative democracy.
Between back-stage guffaws, his soulless posse of fawning yes-persons beg him to ditch the politics and “just be funny”—a sentiment that, as an audience member, I heartily shared. Then, for no apparent reason, Dobbs suddenly takes off the gloves and switches on the funny (would that Williams had this ability in real life), at which point his campaign appearances morph into ghoulish, Leni Reifenstahl-esque rallies. Stalking the darkened stage like a tent show preacher-turned-rock star, Dobbs tells awful jokes (a fairly high percentage of them about his masturbation habits), random clichés about corruption and finally lapses into a revival-like cadence to spout refrains such as, “Don’t like no Democrats, don’t like no Republicans.” In other words, he does a fairly good impression of Al Gore in a black church during the 2000 presidential campaign.
Next, we learn that in the upcoming election the entire nationwide vote will be tabulated on a single company’s machines using flawed software. The company could fix the problem if they wanted to, but they just can’t be bothered. As a result of the flawed vote, Dobbs is elected President. Meanwhile, a woman who worked at the company knows that the election wasn’t legitimate and repeatedly tries to tell Dobbs that he wasn’t really elected, but he thinks she’s crazy. They fall in love anyway over—what else?—a game of paint ball. President-elect Dobbs then goes on “Weekend Update” (where else would the world’s funniest man go?) where he disavows any knowledge of his hapless, whistle-blowing lover (conveniently hospitalized after the computer company tried to kill her), then suddenly (even for this script) reverses course and admits the election was a sham and that he’s not really the President-elect. This is followed by a lengthy diatribe, unfunny even for a “Weekend Update” segment, in which Dobbs informs us that the problem with the way we select Presidents isn’t corruption, influence peddling or even partisan politics, it’s electronic voting. In other words, if we just ban electronic voting in all its forms, Levinson seems to be saying, everything will be OK. After which, the corrupt cipher Dobbs apparently didn’t defeat returns to the presidency and Dobbs returns to hosting his nightly cable TV talk show as if nothing had happened. Finally, (and inexplicably, even for this script), Tom Dobbs is named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year,” hence the movie’s title. Spoiler Alert: If you don’t want to know what happens in “Man of the Year,” don’t read the preceding paragraph.
I’m tempted to say that the script for “Man of the Year” has holes in it big enough to drive a truck through, but that’s such a cliché, I’m afraid if I use it Barry Levinson might find out and offer me a job as a script doctor. There is one great line in the movie, though, and for once it’s credited to its originator: when Dobbs’ manager (played by Christopher Walken) tells him that Mark Twain once said, “The difference between fiction and truth is that fiction needs to be plausible.” (What Mark Twain actually said was, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”) What a pity that Barry Levinson didn’t try to make at least a few scenes in this movie plausible.
And speaking of lines in the movie not credited to their authors, here are just a few: In “Man of the Year,” Robin’s character says “weapons of mass distraction” at least twice, a line that, in recent years, has been the title of a book, a documentary, several opinion pieces and wise-cracked at countless cocktail parties on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Robin also does the “same sex marriage” joke (“Everybody knows that once you’re married it’s the same sex every night!”) that’s been done by so many comedians it’s now in the public domain. He also does the bit about how eventually we’ll all have cell phones built into our heads—a bit Ray Romano did on “Letterman” 10 years ago, except that it was funny when Ray did it. Robin also does the bit about how politicians should have to wear patches from each of their donors like NASCAR drivers do, a bit Eric Idle first performed on “Politically Incorrect” in the mid-1990s. Robin does the bit about taking himself to dinner and buying himself a few drinks before pleasuring himself—a joke that, if I know my history, was first mentioned in the Magna Carta—or was it during the first Lincoln-Douglas debate? Finally, Robin does a joke that I think most of us first heard on the playground as children: “If Cass Elliott had shared that ham sandwich with Karen Carpenter, they’d both be alive today.” Well, at least he was being topical—Cass Elliott died in 1974, Karen Carpenter in 1983.
All of which is to say that I don’t recommend “Man of the Year,” because I don’t. In fact, the film’s only redeeming quality is the incredible acting performances of various characters in the film pretending to laugh uncontrollably at Robin’s jokes. Watching certain scenes in “Man of the Year” is like attending a master thespian’s seminar as one actor after another successfully feigns helpless amusement in the face of Robin’s feeble, at times pitiful, impression of someone with a sense of humor. If you do decide to go see “Man of the Year,” at least do as I did and attend a “Mommy and Me” screening. That way you won’t feel self-conscious or out of place wailing, screaming and sobbing uncontrollably as you watch Robin’s grim tour de force unravel before your very eyes. And when things get really bad—say, during the Cass Elliott/Karen Carpenter “joke,” or when President-Elect Dobbs tells a throng of hard-bitten Beltway reporters that he’s just broken wind—you can always avail yourself of the complimentary changing table they have in the theater lobby during “Mommy and Me” screenings. God knows I did.