Laura Linney and Robin Williams in Man of the YearMAN OF THE YEAR

The best I can say about Barry Levinson's Man of the Year is that, considering its advertising, it isn't at all the movie I was expecting.

If you've seen the previews (hell, if you've seen the poster), you probably know the movie's central conceit: What if a late-night comedian ran for president and actually won? This is one of those maddeningly high concepts that can make audiences giddy with expectation, but after seeing the Man of the Year trailer, my reaction was more like nausea.

With its flashes of motor-mouthed Robin Williams "spontaneously" riffing and free-associating, I was exhausted by the film long before I saw it; for my money, Williams' comic velocity just means he can tell twice as many bum jokes in the time most comedians could tell one. (As for that ungodly poster, which echoes a scene in the film, if my president-elect ever makes a surprise visit to Congress wearing a powdered wig and George Washington regalia, I'm moving to Canada.) Man of the Year looked unbearable - a sort of Good Morning, Special-Interest Groups - and after entering the auditorium, I slumped in my seat and expected the worst.

Yet it turns out the movie isn't bad, mostly because its publicity is so misleading.

True, Williams' shtick is all but insufferable, and the film blithely glides over questions we'd like to see addressed, such as: "With all his kvetching, does this political tyro have any actual ideas?" (Contrary to perception, Man of the Year isn't a fantasy of the Jon Stewart presidency; it's a fantasy of the Jay Leno presidency.)

But writer/director Levinson, it's clear, does have ideas. The crux of the movie, it turns out, isn't Williams' election but the means by which he was elected - a new, computerized voting system that, due to a technical error, accidentally lands the comedian the White House gig. Man of the Year is less about a stand-up as president than about voting "convenience" gone awry, and when Laura Linney's computer analyst stumbles upon the glitch and attempts to reveal the truth, the film becomes a surprisingly engrossing thriller, of all things. (Jeff Goldblum's threatening CEO argues that it's better to have a moron in office than to tell the American people their voting process is faulty.)

Against all expectation, Man of the Year has some of the bite and comic edge of Levinson's Wag the Dog - the scenes on the campaign trail are shot in a jittery, fly-on-the-wall style that feels improvisational - and although it doesn't have anything new or divisive to say about American politics, the film treats its "What if ... ?" scenario with surprising gravity, if not necessarily insight. (Levinson, thankfully, takes the material more seriously than his star does.) Several of his cast members, too, give the movie welcome heft. Linney delivers an unexpectedly bravura turn - the scene of her freaking out in a cafeteria, the result of a drugging by one of Goldblum's associates, is one of the more effective dramatic moments the movie year has given us - and Christopher Walken (less insane, but no less welcome, than usual) and Lewis Black are enjoyably naturalistic as Williams' aides.

It's a true shame that so much time here is spent on Williams and his increasingly predictable "unpredictability"; by now, those over-caffeinated comic rhythms that used to sound so inspired make even his amusing gags unfunny. (The only laugh I got from the film was a brief swat at Britney Spears, delivered by Tina Fey.) Personally, I think Man of the Year would have been infinitely more effective if Levinson had ditched the stand-up angle completely and just focused on a third-party nominee - a Ralph Nader or (egads!) Ross Perot - who accidentally lands the presidency; modern electioneering and voting procedures are hilarious enough without a Robin Williams there to get in the way.


One Night with the KingONE NIGHT WITH THE KING

Biblical movies have a built-in advantage that many screen adaptations don't - regardless of your theological bent, the stories themselves are usually pretty gripping. (Generally speaking, they also give you your money's worth in production and costume design). Michael O. Sajbel's One Night with the King concerns the simple Jewish girl named Hadassah who concealed her heritage, masqueraded as a Persian named Esther, married King Xerxes, and, through her influence on her husband, saved her people from slaughter. The film's storyline, meanwhile, performs a similar task; this Biblical tale, with its strong, involving narrative, rescues the movie from abject tedium. You can find yourself moderately engrossed in the goings-on despite the lifeless, stoic dialogue and the clunky editing and the lack of anything approaching dramatic urgency; for long stretches in One Night with the King, Sajbel may as well have positioned his actors in front of the the camera and had them merely recite the Bible.

A few of the film's actors, though, might well have pulled that off. John Rhys-Davies gives a grave, sincere performance as Hadassah's father; Tommy "Tiny" Lister Jr., with that magnificent rumble of a baritone, provides necessary levity; and Omar Sharif - whom no Biblical endeavor should ever be without - effortlessly conveys wisdom, period, and fundamental decency. (I would love to comment on Sharif's on-screen reunion with Lawrence of Arabia co-star Peter O'Toole, but I must confess, ashamedly, that I walked into the One Night with the King screening two minutes late and missed O'Toole's entire performance.) As for Hasassah/Esther herself, she's played by a wide-eyed, chirpy American actress named Tiffany Dupont, and she's as believable in the role as her name would suggest. One Night with the King is one of those big, stodgy (yet lavishly designed) epics that, at the end, makes some viewers rave, "They don't make 'em like that anymore!" Of course, some of us think that's a good thing.


The Grudge 2THE GRUDGE 2

The demographic that One Night with the King was designed for will probably have a swell time at the movie. So, I'm guessing, will the demographic for The Grudge 2, and based on the screening I attended, that demo is 12-year-old girls. When I caught the film this past Friday afternoon, I was surprised to find myself sharing the auditorium with a group of what must have been a dozen tweens - maybe they were on a class trip. (Asian studies?) The girls shrieked at the predictable "Boo!" scares and then cackled for shrieking in the first place, and there was even a gross-out moment that made them collectively go "Eeeewww ... ," when a hunky guy took a shower and, in long shot, you could see the crack of his ass. For an adult who's already sat through too many of these Japanese-horror knock-offs, nothing in Takashi Shimizu's damp and dull sequel will prove the least bit engaging; the only suspense lies in determining how the film's astonishingly incoherent plot lines will eventually dovetail. Your best bet for enjoyment is accidentally catching The Grudge 2 with its target audience - those gigglers were far more entertaining than anything happening on-screen.

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