A Stand-up Guy

In 'Man of the Year' Baltimore-born director Barry Levinson uses life_ and comic Robin Williams _ to give his political tale a positive sign

October 12, 2006|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Washington — Washington-- --When Barry Levinson set out to make a movie about post-high school limbo, he drew on late nights he'd spent in a Reisterstown Road eatery and created Diner (1982).

When he wanted to capture the immigrant experience, he based Avalon (1990) on his parents' and grandparents' stories of settling in Southwest Baltimore.

So it's not surprising that when he decided to star Robin Williams as a Jon Stewart-like comedian who runs for president in Man of the Year, he thought back to his years as a stand-up comic in L.A.

Whatever the topic, this filmmaker's subject is real life.

Over lunch at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, Levinson says his latest movie "brought together a lot of things that have always interested me, including improvisation and the psychology of the stand-up. I wanted to take a comedian off the stage and put him in real life and see how far he could go."

A year after he left Baltimore for Los Angeles, Levinson and Craig T. Nelson formed a comedy team. Almost a decade before he made Diner and a quarter-century before The Daily Show turned political, Levinson wrote for a late-night ABC show called Comedy News: "We made fun of whatever the hell was going on."

And when Man of the Year needed a news person, Levinson thought of an old friend, WJZ's longtime reporter Richard Sher. "I've known him since college," he says. "[Sher] was at the University of Maryland when I was at American University, but for a period of time we lived together."

The writer-director who made Williams a superstar when he unleashed his spritzing style in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) harnesses Williams' energy far more subtly this time to a more daring mix of genres and a corkscrew plot about Election-Day computer malfunctions. "We shouldn't put our faith in voting machines that have fewer safeguards than a Vegas slot machine," says Williams' character, Tom Dobbs.

In Man of the Year, when Dobbs takes off into unhinged yet on-target political riffs during a tumultuous presidential debate, it's tempting to think Levinson simply handed Williams the topics and let him rip. That's the effect Levinson wants. "It would be foolish not to exploit Robin's capabilities," Levinson says. The director always has loved collaboration; he says he's always had the attitude "if it works, use it." And because Levinson's got the skill to breathe spontaneity into the most carefully choreographed scenes, it's hard to tell which lines he sweated over and which the actors plucked out of thin air.

But the debate's audience and the movie's audience actually ignite when Dobbs declares that political candidates should wear advertising patches like NASCAR drivers. And Williams delivers that sally just as Levinson wrote it in the script.

The NASCAR reference zings not just because it's clever but also because it hits the political bull's-eye. The filmmaker wanted Man of the Year to rise above partisan bickering. This movie's two causes are ridding politics of big money and phoney personalities.

Levinson says, "I was reading Frank Rich's book [The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina], and it tells you that Bush purchased his place in Crawford, Texas, right before he went up for the presidency. It isn't even a functioning ranch; it's more like a movie location. What's appalling is that everything is so managed."

In Man of the Year, the electorate reacts against rehearsed, homogenized politics and responds to a fresh, authentic voice. With his freakishly original, high-velocity, free-association rap, Williams serves that concept even better than the equally quick and brilliant but more traditional Stewart (of Comedy Central) and Bill Maher (of HBO). "Robin's wilder," says Levinson. So, of course, is Dobbs. Although he tries to rein himself in, his campaign clicks only when he embraces his inner and outer wild man. Levinson wanted to show "how comics love being taken seriously; it's their Achilles heel."

Levinson satirized the intersection of politics and theater before in Wag the Dog (1997), the rare movie to inject a political catchphrase into the national dialogue. "Wag the dog" became the term for creating an international incident to deflect domestic scandal.

Still, he refused to repeat himself. "We made Wag the Dog during a more optimistic time; it felt right to take the audience to a dark, cynical place. Now we're already in a dark, cynical place; satire can't compete with reality. You feel if things don't change for the better, what's the alternative? I wanted to make something gentler and more optimistic."

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