guppy's film reviews

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Man Of The Year

Also reviewed this week: The Departed

Director: Barry Levinson
Notable Actors: Robin Williams, Christopher Walken, Lewis Black, Jeff Goldblum
Score: A-
Summary: Rather fun but pointed political meta-comedy.

Okay, everyone is going to say pretty much the same thing when they talk about Man Of The Year. Yes, the obvious analogy is Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. See, Man Of The Year is about political satirist Tom Dobbs (Williams), whose audience urges him to run for President after being fed up with indistinguishable, useless career politicians. That's pretty much what people are doing in real life these days -- it's hard not to have at least heard about the (nonexistent) Stewart/Colbert ticket all the kids are pushing these days. But that's not really what the film's all about.

Okay, it is, sort of. Jon Stewart analogies aside, the film's a pretty blatant political commentary on those useless career politicians. But that doesn't mean it doesn't do a good job, or that it isn't worth your time.

Comedian Tom Dobbs hosts a political comedy show, but there's some sharp commentary going on at his show; the film likens him to Bill Maher and the rest of that crowd. One of his audience members tells him to run for President; he laughs it off as a joke at first, but after a little while, begins to think about it. His candidacy starts as a joke, but becomes increasingly serious as time goes on.

There's a kink in the system, though -- literally. See, this year they've chosen to roll out a new electronic voting system created by a company called Delacroy (an obvious, harsh jab at real-life e-voting giant Diebold). Only there's a problem: there's a glitch in the system that seriously distorts the election results, discovered at the last minute.

I like Robin Williams' movies, but I don't care for his standup, and I think this movie made me realize why. In his standup, Williams acts like a squirrel on speed, jumping frenetically from topic to topic, and that doesn't do much for me. In comedies like Man Of The Year, he does pretty much the same thing, but the film provides a certain amount of context, a framework for him to work within. It works very well here and Williams is, of course, the star of the show. Everyone likes Christopher Walken, of course; Lewis Black's inclusion is a nice nod to his role as real-life political satirist. As you'd expect, though, Williams is the show-stealer.

Man Of The Year is designed to be a commentary on a number of things: career politicians and political parties, electronic voting, and yes, Jon Stewart. It's not perfect, but it does a lot right. First off, yes, the film is very funny. I want to focus more on two other aspects, however.

First, while you'd expect a film like this to be heavily biased towards the left, I felt it did a fairly good job of balancing its snark; the jabs aren't so much at any one party as they are the entire two-party system. I don't know that I can call it "bipartisan," but that was a big bullet to dodge and I think they did a good job with it.

Second, I think I'm on to writer/director Barry Levinson. Above, I called Man Of The Year a meta-comedy, and I did that for a reason. The film is essentially about a comedian calling attention to some serious political issues. I have this sneaking suspicion that that's exactly what Levinson is trying to do with this film: call attention to some real-life serious political issues. A lot of people these days are talking about how they don't see much to distinguish the two major U.S. political parties; that theme features heavily in the film. Likewise, there's a lot to be concerned about with electronic voting systems, principally the lack of a paper trail; again, it's a major feature in the film.

Only Levinson can say for sure whether that was his goal or not. If it was, I think he did a pretty good job and I hope it works. If not, well, it's still a lot of fun as a comedy.

The Departed

Also reviewed this week: Man Of The Year

Director: Martin Scorsese
Notable Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin
Score: A-
Summary: Quality mob film, pretty much the kind of thing we expect from Scorsese.

The Departed is probably going to get a lot of whining about how it's based on a Chinese film (Wu Jian Dao) and why can't Scorsese make an original movie and blah blah blah and while that's true, it's really not the point. The Departed is a good movie with a strong cast.

The setup is pretty simple. Our scene is Boston (actually, it's New York City for most of the film, but shh), and our players are the State Troopers and the Irish mob. Each side has a mole in the other's crew, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) for the "staties" and Colin Sullivan (Damon) for the mafiosos. Costigan is pretending to work for crime boss Frank Costello (Nicholson), but is really tipping off the police to what Costello is doing. Damon is doing the same thing inside the PD for Nicholson, under the noses of Police Chief Queenan (Sheen) and his lieutenant, Dignam (Wahlberg). The film is essentially a big game of back-and-forth.

The acting takes center stage. The big stars here are DiCaprio, Nicholson and -- believe it or not -- Wahlberg. I don't have a strong opinion on DiCaprio's work, but he captured most of my attention during the film; one of his stronger appearances, I think. Damon was a bit less memorable, in contrast. Likewise, while Sheen was a likeable character, I found Wahlberg more interesting to watch. Nicholson probably takes top honors, though; I generally find him a bit inconsistent, but he hit just the right note of sleaze with Costello. Also keep an eye out for Alec Baldwin; I'm a longtime fan of his, and while he gets limited screen time, he makes it count.

The script is a bit convoluted. I'm embarrassed to admit that -- whether due to bad seats, as I got pretty much the last seat in the house, or my own incompetence -- for a little while I had difficulty visually distinguishing Damon and DiCaprio, and was thus confused about the premise for a little while. Once I was certain I understood what was going on, everything clicked pretty well. The conclusion wraps everything up fairly well, though it's a bit abrupt; still, I'd rather have it that way, since the movie feels a bit long at 152 minutes.

Overall the film is nothing particularly new or adventurous for Scorsese, but it's exactly the kind of film he makes, and he makes them well. The Departed is worth seeing, and will probably be a popular pick on DVD.