Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Man of the Year

Posted By on Wed, Oct 18, 2006 at 12:00 AM

Imagine a world where a highly influential TV host à la Jon Stewart calls the bluff of the political machine, runs for president to prove a point, and then ends up winning the White House? It sounds like a smashing idea for a sophisticated satire, if only director Barry Levinson had risen to the occasion. Instead he’s taken the amusing story of pundit Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) and his joke candidacy, and bogs it down with the cliché trappings of a mystery thriller: There’s an ominous subplot about the installation of flawed electronic voting machines by a ruthless corporation (which is too similar to real life to be funny). Then there’s whistleblower Eleanor (Laura Linney), who discovers a major glitch in the system, and spends all her screen time fretting, worrying, crying and getting chased by company goons as if she were a fugitive from some Ashley Judd potboiler. Add to this a somewhat inapt romance between the leads and the result is an ambitious film that gets in its own way.

Levinson has made thematically risky tightrope walks before (as in his classic earlier collaboration with Williams, Good Morning Vietnam), but here he falls flat. Robin Williams can’t quite decide if he’s going for his wild-man shtick or the maudlin puppy dog act he often adopts in dramas, and never finds his rhythm. While there’s inspired material, there are also plenty of hack jokes worthy of any local open-mic night. Worse, Levinson refuses to take the muzzle off Williams long enough to just let him rip. The comedy is continually kept at arm’s length, such as the presidential debate scene, where Dobb’s brilliant dismantling of the same old political pabulum is mostly seen through the blurry TV monitors backstage. Instead of just trusting the jokes, we get endless reaction shots of Dobbs’s flunkies cackling, as if we needed to know where to laugh. It’s also shameful to cast The Daily Show rant artist Lewis Black — a hilarious comic in his own right — then waste him as a setup for Williams’ punch lines. The film’s politics are equally toothless; Levinson lambastes the lack of backbone in liberal leaders who won’t speak plainly, but the director himself never gets to the heart of the issues.

Man of the Year has its pleasures, but it’s frustrating to see such a wonderful premise executed so poorly; Levinson and company should have stuck to comedy and cast aside the conspiracy-thriller like a Florida resident’s vote.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning

Is Leatherface gay? We know from the original round of Texas Chainsaw Massacre films that he likes to wear his mama’s dress from time to time. In this new, utterly unnecessary prequel to the already unnecessary 2003 remake, we see him caress and fondle the sinewy flesh of the movie’s teen-dude hostages so much you’d think he was a Republican congressman.

It helps to dream up such pointless subtext during this installment of the revived franchise, because you’ll be bored silly otherwise. The Beginning is as rote as horror gets, a “family who slays together, stays together” flick mated with a clichéd wrong-turn road trip story. Furthermore, the 1969 setting allows for some ridiculous scenes that demonstrate the filmmakers don’t know anything about that era. The movie is like a Maxim photo spread honoring the free-love generation, using the latest Old Navy collection: tunics, cowboy shirts and biker jackets.

In a franchise-horror effort like this, you want your body count high and your laughs low, something director Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls) just doesn’t understand. The first hour is deathly dull, focusing more on the antics of Leatherface’s adoptive redneck dad, Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey), than anything else. Ermey played the legendary, sadistic drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and here he’s asked to play a campy variation on that character; the lame attempts at humor undercut the shocks right from the start.

The film is so inept, it loses track of main characters for large stretches of time. Most will be disappointed to find that Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) doesn’t even factor into the movie much until the last half-hour, when the gore rate increases but not the thrills. If you’re going to tackle cannibal-family horror, it helps to at least have the gonzo theatrics of 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects, or the subtle Bush-bashing subtext of this spring’s halfway decent Hills Have Eyes remake. By comparison, this Leatherface seems downright limp-wristed.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to


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