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A Stand-up Guy

The Baltimore Sun

Washington-- --When Barry Levinson set out to make a movie about post-high school limbo, he drew on late nights he'd spent in a Reisterstown Road eatery and created Diner (1982).

When he wanted to capture the immigrant experience, he based Avalon (1990) on his parents' and grandparents' stories of settling in Southwest Baltimore.

So it's not surprising that when he decided to star Robin Williams as a Jon Stewart-like comedian who runs for president in Man of the Year, he thought back to his years as a stand-up comic in L.A.

Whatever the topic, this filmmaker's subject is real life.

Over lunch at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, Levinson says his latest movie "brought together a lot of things that have always interested me, including improvisation and the psychology of the stand-up. I wanted to take a comedian off the stage and put him in real life and see how far he could go."

A year after he left Baltimore for Los Angeles, Levinson and Craig T. Nelson formed a comedy team. Almost a decade before he made Diner and a quarter-century before The Daily Show turned political, Levinson wrote for a late-night ABC show called Comedy News: "We made fun of whatever the hell was going on."

And when Man of the Year needed a news person, Levinson thought of an old friend, WJZ's longtime reporter Richard Sher. "I've known him since college," he says. "[Sher] was at the University of Maryland when I was at American University, but for a period of time we lived together."

The writer-director who made Williams a superstar when he unleashed his spritzing style in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) harnesses Williams' energy far more subtly this time to a more daring mix of genres and a corkscrew plot about Election-Day computer malfunctions. "We shouldn't put our faith in voting machines that have fewer safeguards than a Vegas slot machine," says Williams' character, Tom Dobbs.

In Man of the Year, when Dobbs takes off into unhinged yet on-target political riffs during a tumultuous presidential debate, it's tempting to think Levinson simply handed Williams the topics and let him rip. That's the effect Levinson wants. "It would be foolish not to exploit Robin's capabilities," Levinson says. The director always has loved collaboration; he says he's always had the attitude "if it works, use it." And because Levinson's got the skill to breathe spontaneity into the most carefully choreographed scenes, it's hard to tell which lines he sweated over and which the actors plucked out of thin air.

But the debate's audience and the movie's audience actually ignite when Dobbs declares that political candidates should wear advertising patches like NASCAR drivers. And Williams delivers that sally just as Levinson wrote it in the script.

The NASCAR reference zings not just because it's clever but also because it hits the political bull's-eye. The filmmaker wanted Man of the Year to rise above partisan bickering. This movie's two causes are ridding politics of big money and phoney personalities.

Levinson says, "I was reading Frank Rich's book [The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina], and it tells you that Bush purchased his place in Crawford, Texas, right before he went up for the presidency. It isn't even a functioning ranch; it's more like a movie location. What's appalling is that everything is so managed."

In Man of the Year, the electorate reacts against rehearsed, homogenized politics and responds to a fresh, authentic voice. With his freakishly original, high-velocity, free-association rap, Williams serves that concept even better than the equally quick and brilliant but more traditional Stewart (of Comedy Central) and Bill Maher (of HBO). "Robin's wilder," says Levinson. So, of course, is Dobbs. Although he tries to rein himself in, his campaign clicks only when he embraces his inner and outer wild man. Levinson wanted to show "how comics love being taken seriously; it's their Achilles heel."

Levinson satirized the intersection of politics and theater before in Wag the Dog (1997), the rare movie to inject a political catchphrase into the national dialogue. "Wag the dog" became the term for creating an international incident to deflect domestic scandal.

Still, he refused to repeat himself. "We made Wag the Dog during a more optimistic time; it felt right to take the audience to a dark, cynical place. Now we're already in a dark, cynical place; satire can't compete with reality. You feel if things don't change for the better, what's the alternative? I wanted to make something gentler and more optimistic."

Energetic and prolific, Levinson put his name as a producer, director or writer on a half-dozen movies or TV shows between 2001's delightful Bandits (which had the bad luck to be released right after Sept. 11), and 2004's odd, erratic Envy (which DreamWorks threw away, despite the star power of Ben Stiller and Jack Black). He also wrote his first novel, the evocative, Baltimore-based, semi-autobiographical Sixty-Six.

But Levinson stepped back during the 2004 presidential campaign and began writing "op-ed pieces that I couldn't get published," including one containing Dobbs' NASCAR riff. Tired of editors telling him that they'd already lined up this or that pundit, Levinson thought, "Hey, I am a screenwriter." He put his ideas into a script.

"The computer was the launching thing," says Levinson. "A computer malfunctions, or maybe it doesn't malfunction, or it was a glitch, or not a glitch, or everything was fine; all you know is that a strange aberration shows up, and there's no backup system. Here we are in this democracy, supposedly the greatest democracy on the face of the earth, and we don't even know whether our vote counts or not."

Originally, the action pivoted on a Ralph Nader-like third-party candidate. "Then I realized it wasn't so interesting; when you get right down to it, Nader's not that interesting." Trying to have "more fun with the idea," Levinson hit on the notion of "a Jon Stewart-like political humorist."

The finished movie has two heroes: Dobbs and software analyst Eleanor Green (Laura Linney). She's the one who detects a flaw in the voting software and figures it out. Levinson's challenge was "to keep a dramatic structure going" when Green attempts to blow the whistle and still "allow the comedy to work because of the nature of this guy Dobbs."

In Man of the Year, Linney's company attempts to discredit her by shooting her full of drugs and forcing her to enter rehab. How nervous did Levinson get when Williams entered rehab? Not at all, it seems. "The good news with Robin is that he did it as a pre-emptive thing before he got into trouble, not afterwards. ... It didn't affect his work. He drank at night, mostly alone I think."

Levinson's bullish on Man of the Year, even though the studio has been selling a pure romp rather than a comedy-streaked cautionary tale. Test audiences have been responding not just to Williams, but also to Linney as a strong, honorable woman who won't let public humiliation defeat her. "Plus," says Levinson, "she's not some holier-than-thou. She complains about the validity of the voting, but she admits she doesn't vote. I think that's where a lot of Americans are."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Barry Levinson

Born:

April 6, 1942, in Baltimore

Education:

graduated from Forest Park High School and Baltimore Junior College; attended Mount Vernon Law School, American University

Awards:

best director Oscar for Rain Man (1988); Creative Achievement Award from the American Comedy Awards (1999)

Current projects:

3 Lbs., a TV series about an arrogant neurosurgeon; What Just Happened?, a movie adaptation of producer Art Linson's book about Hollywood

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