by Ed Symkus & r & & r & Man of the Year & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & e've been in something close to this territory before. Kevin Kline played a guy who looks just like, and eventually takes the place of, the president of the United States in Dave. Richard Dreyfuss was an actor who happens to be in Parador when that country's dictator dies, and is asked to take over that man's "role" in Moon Over Parador. Stretching it a bit, Peter Sellers was Oscar-nominated for his work as a simple-minded gardener who is mistakenly given access to men of great power -- and may get that power himself -- in Being There.

Here again, in Barry Levinson's comedy-drama, the wrong man is in the right place in a story about a very important political position. This film, however, goes in many different directions than any of its predecessors.

For one thing, it's got Robin Williams in a part so tailor-made for him, even his detractors will admit that he's very good in it. He plays Tom Dobbs, a successful talk show host who likes to mix comedy with politics. One night during the show, an audience member shouts out that he should run for president in the upcoming election, never mind those other real politicians. And wouldn't you know it, he likes the idea, and later announces his candidacy right on the air. Before you can say, "Bush stole the election," Dobbs is out there campaigning as an independent, and making a heck of a lot of sense to voters who, he believes, are tired of both Democrats and Republicans.

Williams is in all of his glory in the film, with his character perfectly dropping Levinson's shrewdly written one-liners even as some key issues of the day are mixed in. Both Levinson and Williams have Dobbs start off slowly, not completely sure of where to take him. But the character's manager (Christopher Walken) and his main gag writer (Lewis Black) know that while the candidate should have a serious side, those who might vote for him also want to be entertained by him. After all, that's the only side of him the public really knows. There just may not be anyone better than Williams to show off both conventional and showboating personas, often at the same time.

It all turns into a story of political campaigning as rock 'n' roll. Bill Clinton was quite good at this kind of thing when he honked out a saxophone solo on Arsenio Hall's show. But the Dobbs machine takes it a step further, adding dance steps and flashy lighting.

As Hollywood is wont to do in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the media takes some drubbing, or at least looks foolish. One commentator practically gushes, "He makes political points with his comedy." Others refer to him, not as a candidate, but as "comedian Tom Dobbs."

Everything about the film works well. It moves along at a fast pace -- literally. There's plenty of quick-cut editing, and even when the cameras are still, the characters seem always to be on the run. And the story progresses in a pleasingly believable manner.

Until a second story, one that soon grabs an equal share of viewers' attentions, kind of gets in the way.

A young up-and-comer named Eleanor (Laura Linney) in an up-and-coming company that has created a new electronic voting machine -- just in time for the election -- discovers a glitch in the system during a routine check. And it's a glitch that just might be big enough to severely alter the results of that election. When she tells her bosses about it, they tell her to shut up. When she doesn't shut up, she gets a late-night visit to her home that's meant to convince her to.

This part of the story holds some intrigue, but it's too much of a shift in mood and plotting from what has preceded it. In some ways, it comes across as a whole different movie, one with some nail-biting tension that simply does not fit comfortably with this kind of comedy.

Taking only a little away from the talented Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, the underrated Bandits), the film might have worked better under the hands of a director with more of a dark-comic edge -- say Robert Altman or Martin Scorsese.

The film suffers slightly from a series of niggling little plot contrivances that are accompanied by well-presented studies in spin control (always a fun subject), personal dilemmas (Williams is convincingly conflicted), and the power of TV (Saturday Night Live gets some nice plot and product placement).

The film also marks the first time comic and The Daily Show regular Lewis Black gets to strut some comic-dramatic stuff by wisely holding himself back from his usual shtick of overacting. Those wondering what the film's title refers to will have to wait till the final frame to find out. It's worth the wait.

(worth $8)MAN OF THE YEAR

Rated PG-13

Written and Directed

by Barry Levinson

Starring Robin Williams, Christopher Walken, Lewis Black, Laura Linney

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
  • or