Robbins revels in the ride to fame as candidate 'Bob Roberts'

September 18, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Sometimes I envy conspiracy fanatics. At least for them, reality makes a lot of sense: Whatever their bias, the universe is a network of secret allegiances, wicked cause-and-effect scenarios, hidden influences, all of it connected. There's no random drift, no whimsy, no jests of god; it's all a plot.

That deep-end conviction underlies "Bob Roberts," and ultimately overcomes it. You feel as if you're reading the minutes of the Christic Institute. But for the longest time, the film is great fun, a satire of politics as practiced by the media savvy in a media-saturated environment.

The bias is flagrantly liberal, and the film makes no attempt to hide that, to its credit. It's constructed as (another!) mock documentary, this one being made by a mild British reporter, following the Bob Roberts phenomenon through Pennsylvania.

The auteur of the film, Tim Robbins, casts himself as Roberts, and playing his avowed enemy with such smug, smarmy, lounge-lizard aplomb seems to have been great fun for Robbins. Robbins knows, as did Robert Altman who cast him as an equally duplicitous snake in "The Player," just how wonderfully insidious his own screen persona can be; when he smiles calmly, whole tectonic plates of perfidy seem revealed.

Anyway, Bob Roberts is a slick yahoo who has ridden to national fame with a series of right wing folk songs, a kind of anti-Dylan. His most famous album is "The Times, They Are A-Changing Back." He's parlayed his fame, his gift for conservative bromides and his smug yet lovable mug into the Republican senatorial nomination for Pennsylvania, where he's opposed by longtime liberal senator Gore Vidal. The movie follows the campaign bus, which is really more of a rolling brokerage (Bob is into high growth money-marketing) through the Keystone state as the campaign heads toward election day.

The movie is full of documentary conceits, like hand-held camera work, natural sound collapsing into a jumble of confusion, TV commercials and the like. At the same time, a whole gallery of Hollywood liberals pitch in acid cameos as reporters or followers or enemies, as the case may be and as the campaign goes onward.

Curiously enough, Robbins is slightly less savage to his Republican Prince of Greed than he is to the poor stiffs of the working press, who continually refuse to investigate the tips on Bob's darker connections dredged up by a reporter for a radical newspaper. In fact, TV reporters are played throughout as flacks and bimbos. Robbins also goes after the entertainment media, putting Bob on a show much like "Saturday Night Live" and watching with gleeful disapprobation as the slicksters back down and allow Bob to pipe his brand of crypto-fascist psycho-babble across the airwaves. His only media heroes are the occasional hothead who blows any sense of professional cool, denounces Bob baldly on air and heads off into bitter self-imposed exile. Why do I suspect this wouldn't stop any potential Bob Roberts nearly as quickly as a good, hard-hitting investigative team from the Washington Post or The Sun, which such a phenomenon as Bob would surely unleash in spades.

Anyway, "Bob Roberts" lurches toward self-destruction soon enough as, desperate for a destination, it insists in linking Bob not merely with the archenemy republicanism but the whole litany on American evils, '90s-style: the CIA, the contras, the dreadful war against poor little Iraq, and, finally, the secret cabal that really runs things, the National Security Committee. Bob isn't a character, he's a one-man whole unified conspiracy theory, and I haven't even mentioned the links to the S & L crises, drug smuggling and Watergate.

In the end, the movie has the sour smell of something preaching to the converted. Its zest has been compromised in favor of sheer ludicrousness. But then again, I'm someone who thinks the scariest thing in it is the idea of Gore Vidal in the United States Senate!

'Bob Roberts'

Starring Tim Robbins.

Directed by Tim Robbins.

Released by Paramount.

Rated PG-13.


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