So, what if Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert decided to run for President? First of all, didn’t we already see that movie, when it was called Head of State and starred Chris Rock? (Okay, he didn’t play a comedian, but he is a comedian and behaved like one.) The idea of a campaign by an outsider who can tell the truth has had appeal in movies (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and in real life (from the joke campaign of Pat Paulson to the not-joke campaigns of Ross Perot and Alan Keyes). But this latest version dilutes the sharpness of Robin Williams and the political comedians who inspired his character and then veers off into an uninteresting thriller sidetrack that is not the least bit thrilling.
Comedians and politicians have been locked together symbiotically since the first person assumed power over others, immediately followed by someone who made a joke about it. Politicians have to speak in a kind of code, even when they are being “outspoken” and promise straight talk. Comedians can tell the truth, even the outrageous truth, even the wildly exaggerated truth, because it’s all in fun.
Kings had jesters. Today’s politicos have late-night television and stand-up comics. They also have increasingly partisan and screechy news media and increasingly popular comedy news shows, which, surveys show, are the preferred news source for a large segment of the population, especially young people. Why not? You get two for the price of one, headlines and jokes. Real newsmakers appear for interviews on fake news shows and real news shows get increasingly more clownish. The line between news and faux news is dissolving.
All of this could have made a great movie. But this isn’t it. Williams looks puffy, toned down, and distracted, except in his interactions with Christopher Walken as his manager, with whom he has a wonderful chemistry. When they are together, we get a glimpse of what this movie could have been. But the movie veers off into an uninvolving and unoriginal distraction about a corrupt corporation and vote fraud.
Any movie about politics has a huge obstacle to overcome in having to pull its punches by making the humor generic and innoffensive. Because of the lead-time between filming and release (not to mention DVD), there is no chance for anything topical. Even so, many of the would-be wisecracks are overcooked and overworked. I think I recall a few of them from the Ford administration. Which makes sense because as irreverent and subversive as it wants to be, it is just bland.
Parents should know that the movie has some strong and crude language and sexual references. Characters drink and smoke; one continues to smoke even after nearly losing his life from tobacco-related disease. A character is injected with illegal drugs. Characters are in peril and one is badly injured.
Families who see this movie should talk about what made Tom an appealing candidate. Would you have voted for him? Why? What is the most important thing you look for in a candidate? What can the media do better in covering politics?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Head of State and classic movies about politics like State of the Union, The Candidate, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Great McGinty, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, and Primary Colors (the last two with mature material).