Thursday, September 6, 2007

Die, Mr. Smith, Die

Gore Vidal loved to bash Frank Capra's political films, calling them corny and unrealistic, which they pretty much were. Of course, Vidal had a personal reason to criticize Capra, as the famed director was slated to helm Vidal's much grittier treatment, "The Best Man", but was fired from the project after Vidal blanched at his lunatic suggestions (one had Henry Fonda donning Abe Lincoln garb and reaching out to a convention's delegates). Vidal insisted that "The Best Man" was the only true-to-life film about American electoral politics, though he did give a favorable nod to "The Candidate" starring Robert Redford, and later appeared as a liberal senator in Tim Robbins' "Bob Roberts". I don't know what Vidal thought of Warren Beatty's "Bulworth", but it's a sentimental favorite of mine, and I would add it to the rather slim pantheon of decent political films.

Most Hollywood takes on American politics, however, owe more to Capra's fantasies than to Vidal's grim realism. Aaron Sorkin's dreadful "An American President" is a glaring example (along with Sorkin's "The West Wing"), as is "Dave", in which Kevin Kline plays Mr. Smith in disguise. Indeed, the Capra-esque concept of the Everyman Outsider shaking up the status quo has been milked into a coma; and Barry Levinson's "Man of the Year" is the most recent specimen of this brain-dead state.

I caught Levinson's film the other night on HBO, and I can see why it received lousy reviews. It's an unfocused, scattershot effort, and coming at a time when imperial war and corporate corruption and cronyism are rampant, "Man of the Year" is unforgivably toothless as well.

In brief, the film follows TV comic Tom Dobbs, played by Robin Williams, as he runs for and eventually wins the presidency over an incumbent Dem president and a bland Repub challenger. And in case you find that extremely unlikely (imagine how angrily the liberal netroots would respond to an independent run against a Dem incumbent), Levinson throws in a subplot about fixed Diebold voting machines which goes nowhere and says little about the privatization of politics.

Williams' political rants and routines make Jon Stewart look like Che Guevara. When his President-Elect Dobbs discovers that he really didn't win the election, Capra's ghost guides him to do the right thing and concede. Being first and foremost a political satirist, Dobbs must find the proper outlet to tell the world the truth. And where does he confess? Why, on that hard-hitting satirical juggernaut, Weekend Update with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, of course!

Poehler's admission that "SNL's" fake news segment steers clear of political reality is perhaps the most honest line in the film, and it could easily apply to "Man of the Year" overall. In these savage times, the funniest lines are the straightest takes, for it's nearly impossible to twist reality any more than it already is. George Carlin shows how it's done, and makes more salient points in four-and-a-half minutes than Barry Levinson does in an entire film. No wonder Lorne Michaels never invited Carlin back to "SNL" -- this bit would melt the show's cameras and render Fey and Poehler mute. Another reason to like it.