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MOVIE REVIEW

High hopes fade fast for 'Man of the Year'

``Man of the Year" has to be one of the most frustrating dropped balls in recent multiplex memory. Jon Stewart -- or someone very much like him -- runs for president and gets elected? What a great idea for a modern comedy, one that pokes right at the sore spot where politics and pop culture intersect today.

Barry Levinson is writing and directing? All the better, since 1997's ``Wag the Dog" may be the sharpest Washington satire of the past 10 years. Robin Williams is playing the comedian elevated to the Oval Office? Great; the trailer for ``Man of the Year" makes it look as though Williams is back in manic form.

Sadly, the trailer cherry-picks from the first 20 minutes, before the movie goes south in a hurry. After establishing this most topical of premises, Levinson inexplicably turns ``Man" into a dank corporate thriller with a romantic subplot that beggars belief. You can hear the smarts whoosh out of the film like air from a slashed tire.

Williams plays Tom Dobbs, host of a wildly popular late-night political comedy show. He's Stewart, Bill Maher, Al Franken, and Dennis Miller rolled into one cuddly, acerbic package, and when someone in the audience one night shouts that he should run for president, the Draft Dobbs movement takes on a momentum of its own. E-mails pour in, signatures are amassed, and the comedian starts taking the idea seriously.

Too seriously; Dobbs's stump speeches are numbers-rich planks of drywall that have his producer (Christopher Walken, as endearingly loopy as ever) and head writer (splenetic comedian Lewis Black) pitching fits. Despairs the manager, ``It's like the comedian who gets to play Carnegie Hall and shows up with a violin."

Dobbs gets the message in time to crash a televised debate like Christy Mihos on laughing gas; he wins by a landslide and shows up in Congress wearing a Founding Fathers wig, cracking wise and winning over the media. However, a glitch in the new computerized balloting system is actually responsible for his victory and Delacroy Software worker Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) wants to go public with the truth.

Her bosses, led by slimy corporate attorney Jeff Goldblum, insist the whistle-blower is a crazed former employee and break out the dirty tricks. Despite this, she manages to get close to the president-elect -- the Secret Service is apparently out getting hot dogs -- and despite all evidence she's a flake of the first order, Dobbs falls in love.

Wait a minute: What happened to that sharp political comedy? Why has Williams reverted to hangdog mode, and why is Linney, one of our best working actresses, stammering like a Trekkie at her first convention? ``Man of the Year" becomes a small, sort-of love story surrounded by a lugubrious conspiracy drama, which in turn is surrounded by the dispersing gas es of a parable that could have hurt us where we live.

The film has a great, ornery question in its sights -- if we demand our politicians entertain us, do we deserve what we get? -- but Levinson never pulls the trigger. In truth, he forgets the gun is loaded. One walks out of ``Man of the Year" aching for the squandered opportunities.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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