Remember when CNN’s Larry King prodded Ross Perot to run for president in 1992 against George Bush and Bill Clinton? In the unexpectedly straight-faced Man of the Year Jon Stewart-ish fake TV newsman Tom Dobbs (Williams) makes a similar White House run at a fan’s urging. And the sharp-tongued finger-pointing political satirist wins. But think again if you next expect director/writer Barry Levinson—the brains behind Wag the Dog—to explore the comic possibilities of a president trying to run the country without Democratic or Republican support. Instead Levinson’s stupidity turns Man of the Year into an overwrought cautionary tale about e-voting. See a computer voting error accidentally manipulated the results in Dobbs’ favor. But rather than examine the fallout of a tainted election Man of the Year quickly and preposterously goes from The Candidate to Enemy of the State. Levinson unwisely shifts his attention to the woman responsible for discovering the glitch in her company’s electronic voting system. While the president-elect makes public appearances dressed as George Washington Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) discovers that her bosses will do anything—including resorting to violence—to stop her from going public for fear the scandal would bankrupt their company. Having worked together on Good Morning Vietnam and Toys Levinson knows when to let Williams cut loose. Accordingly the motor-mouthed master of improv doesn’t hold back especially when he’s riffing on issues of the day with his advisors (played with uncharacteristic restraint by a wheel-bound Christopher Walken and with much jittery arm-waving by standup comedian Lewis Black). More often than not though Williams can be overbearing and Levinson’s too afraid to tell him to stop. But when events turn serious and Dobbs runs out of wisecracks the schmaltzy annoying Williams of Patch Adams rears his ugly head. And then you can’t wait for Williams to again go all wild and crazy. Unfortunately that’s doesn’t happen too much after Linney’s Eleanor Green rains on Dobbs’ victory parade. You have to pity Linney. While everyone else is joking about appointing Bruce Springsteen secretary of state she finds herself at the center of a conspiracy that not even Will Smith could survive in one piece. And the usually sturdy Linney unfortunately cracks under the pressure. She looks lost haggard and sadly uncomfortable whenever she’s in Williams’ presence. Man of the Year is a greatest act of cowardice committed to film this year by a director with much to gain and everything to lose. And that’s a shock considering Levinson—who made his name with Diner and Tin Men—desperately needs to restore his tarnished reputation after the disastrous Bandits Envy and Sphere. There’s no denying that Man of the Year had potential. The current climate lends itself to an honest and enterprising exploration of a serious challenge to the two-party political system. Had he settled on making another stinging satire in the vein of Wag the Dog Levinson would have gotten away with such an unbelievable post-election turn of events. But Man of the Year is not the wacky sitcom-ish farce its trailer suggests. It’s too grim and cumbersome for its own good and that unfortunately renders Levinson’s efforts a waste and his intentions politically irrelevant. Surely Levinson should have realized that what worked once for him with Wag the Dog would have worked again with Man of the Year. Judging by this mess and his recent misfires Levinson’s clearly lost his touch—and his nerve.