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A politician who's funny on purpose

Robin Williams' `Man of the Year' puts a comic in the White House, but the real joke is on the process.

October 08, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

AT the Polo Lounge on a weekday afternoon, half the tables on the back patio are occupied by folks describing movie deals and every third woman looks like Nicollette Sheridan. If you happen to be a famous person, there are two ways to cross a room like this -- embrace it or ignore it.

Barry Levinson opts for the former, amiably greeting friends (one of whom turns out to be the actual Nicollette Sheridan) as he saunters along in his black tracksuit. Two minutes later Robin Williams arrives. Shoulders up, eyes down, he moves at a pace that in any other environment would be described as "scuttling." "Is Barry here yet?" he asks, sliding into a back booth; he had moved so quickly, so intently that he didn't even see his friend as he passed him.

The two are in town promoting their new film and third collaboration, "Man of the Year," opening Friday, which chronicles the accidental election of a comic talk show host to the presidency. And just like many past candidates, Williams is dealing with personal publicity issues of his own -- in August, he announced through his publicist that after 20 years of sobriety he was checking into an alcoholism treatment center.

"Look at you," he says when Levinson approaches, "in your tracksuit, Mr. Sporty." "And look at you," Levinson replies.

"All dried out and everything," Williams finishes for him, making the point perhaps so no one else has to make it first, or, even worse, go out of their way not to make it. The dark humor is reminiscent of many recovering alcoholics but the alternating voices are pure Williams -- "The first drink is the enemy, my friend." "Are you sure? Are you sure I can't just learn how to, I don't know, do it better?" It is, of course, precisely the kind of conversation that separates an actor from a politician. Still, for all his trademark zaniness, Williams is as relentlessly ambitious as a public official, a man clearly driven by, if nothing else, the need to constantly participate in his craft. At 55, he has been in more than 50 films -- five of them hitting theaters this year alone.

Some have been huge hits ("Mrs. Doubtfire," "Aladdin"), some critical successes ("Good Will Hunting," for which Williams won an Oscar, "Insomnia"), but many have flopped. Over the years, he has been criticized for trying to do drama, for being too sentimental or simply for his ubiquitousness. Still he maintains his Teflon-coated rule -- despite "Patch Adams," "Death to Smoochy" and even "RV," he remains among audiences a beloved figure -- and if any comedian had a chance of becoming president, it would probably be Robin Williams.

Yet when asked if he has ever considered what would happen if he were elected president, or even governor, the actor laughs so hard he slides sideways.

"That's interesting. Remember Gary Hart? I make him look Amish. They start digging into my past, it's all over."

The story of comedian talk show host Tom Dobbs (think Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert) who, prodded by fans and Internet traffic, decides to run for president and then accidentally wins, "Man of the Year" is being called a "gentle satire."

As with "Good Morning, Vietnam," the first project on which Williams and Levinson collaborated, the narrative allows the actor opportunities to do what amounts to stand-up while still following a dramatic arc. For Levinson, "Man of the Year" is a return to a familiar political arena: 1997's "Wag the Dog," in which a political operative teams with a producer to save a president from scandal, was his last critical directorial success.

Those who are expecting the same sort of biting satire of "Wag the Dog," however, may be disappointed. It's not the director's sentiments that have changed but the mood of the country.

According to Levinson, "Man of the Year" is very much a movie of its time, both in topic -- a computer glitch is behind Dobbs' unexpected win -- and tone. Part thriller (the computer company responsible for the glitch is trying to stop its whistle-blower, played by Laura Linney) and part love story (Dobbs and said whistle-blower become quite fond of each other), as a political satire, "Man of the Year" is surprisingly upbeat. Intentionally so.

Levinson, who wrote and directed, wouldn't categorize the film as a satire at all, he says, because the times are frankly too dark for satire.

"When we did 'Wag the Dog,' it was a more optimistic period," he says. "Now we are in an astoundingly cynical period, a period of absurdity that seems almost out of control. You can't top that absurdity.

"So you don't go in that direction. So you might as well be optimistic. Americans," he adds, "are basically optimistic." "Which is why so many Europeans think we're crazy," says Williams.

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Campaigning gets its close-up

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