MOVIE REVIEW- Minute man: Diebold and de beautiful

Looking at the state of American politics, you have to laugh or cry. Man of the Year laughs.

Barry Levinson is back in the satirical mode of his Wag the Dog in what is essentially a two-hour Robin Williams stand-up routine occasionally interrupted by a plot.

The plot has merit and the best of intentions but is poorly thought-through. Three little words about a computer glitch are themselves a glitch that undermines the whole enterprise.

Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a popular TV comic. In August, a member of his audience says he should run for President. He mentions it on the air, triggering a grass-roots Internet campaign. Two weeks later, Tom announces his candidacy.

At first he surprises everyone by speaking seriously about the issues, over the advice of his manager, Jack Menken (Christopher Walken), and whatever-he-is Eddie Langston (Lewis Black).

After Tom gets on the ballot in 13 states, he's invited, as "the strongest of the independents," to participate in the final presidential debate with the Democratic incumbent and the Republican challenger. There he cuts loose with a combination of jokes and serious attacks on his opponents. "It's gonna be a whole new ball game," he announces, "so brace yourselves, people."

Meanwhile, back in California, Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) works for Delacroy (read Diebold) Systems, the company awarded a contract to provide voting machines for the entire country. A perfectionist, she tests a machine and finds the totals it spits out don?t agree with the votes she casts.

She reports to the CEO of the company, and he tells her to be quiet because it's too late to fix the software before the election. Hatchet man Jeff Goldblum tells Eleanor she'll bring down Democracy and the company if she blows the whistle.

Comes the election, an upset victory for Dobbs, and it's announced that "the free world will now be led by a comedian." (What else is new?) Delacroy ensures Eleanor's silence by drugging her so she has a breakdown at work. She never shows anyone the mark where the drugs were injected into her arm.

Instead she goes to Washington and arranges to meet the President-elect, who doesn't have a First Lady and is taken with Eleanor. She delays a ridiculous amount of time before telling him her urgent purpose in seeking him out. "I didn't win?" he asks, and she replies, "not even close."

Therein lies the film's fatal flaw. Levinson is trying to warn of the danger of computerized voting with no means of verification, yet Eleanor must have found a way to track the actual results if she knows Tom was "not even close." Even if that's overlooked, it's too late to get the desired paper trail instituted in time for this year's real-life election in states that haven't yet set the wheels in motion.

Levinson softens his edge by blaming a software problem rather than a deliberate attempt to fix the election, but this will allow both major parties to embrace the message without either getting defensive.

Williams' shtick ranges from the very general ("If Mama Cass had shared a sandwich with Karen Carpenter, they'd both be alive today") to the bitingly topical ("If it was unpatriotic to question the government, we'd still be English") and varied stops between ("If I had my way, I'd have an all-lesbian cabinet. They may not accomplish more, but it'd be fun to think about what they're doing behind closed doors").

He's in manic mode, but it's mania with a purpose.  He has serious moments too, but if you've been missing the funny Robin Williams, this is the first time in ages he's been as funny in a live-action movie as when he's promoting the movies on talk shows.