Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) is a comedian of a satirical talk show who is able to tap into people's frustrations with the sharply divided, special interest-driven political climate. Specifically, he makes fun of the American two-party system. During his warm-up act, an audience member suggests that he run for president. At first, Dobbs laughs off the idea, but following a popular groundswell of support, later announces on the air that he will stand as a candidate. Through his efforts, he gets on the ballot in 13 states and participates in one of the national debates with the Democratic incumbent, President Kellogg, and Republican U.S. Senator Mills.
A parallel plot follows Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), who works at a voting machine company in California called Delacroy. According to a television commercial in the movie, the entire United States will be using Delacroy voting machines for the Presidential election. Shortly before the elections, Eleanor notices that the voting system does not work correctly and alerts the head of the company, James Hemmings (Rick Roberts) via e-mail.
Initially, Dobbs approaches the campaign seriously – perhaps too seriously, to the chagrin of his staff, especially his manager Jack Menken (Christopher Walken). That turns around the night of the presidential debates, when, fed up with the other candidates' posturing, Dobbs shifts back into comedian mode, managing to keep the audience laughing and make serious points simultaneously. From then on, he resumes his showman persona, thoroughly shaking up the political landscape. Dobbs surges in polls after the debates, but remains a distant third to Kellogg and Mills.
Election Day arrives, and polls show Dobbs at 17% with Kellogg and Mills tied in the 40s. Early returns show Kellogg beating Mills everywhere. Eleanor says that this is part of the error in the voting systems. Suddenly, Dobbs starts winning states. He soon stands at 146 electoral votes, and the media report that if he wins the remaining states whose ballot he is on, he will become president. Soon afterwards, results show that Tom Dobbs has indeed won the Presidential race, beating out Kellogg and Mills. Eleanor tells James Hemmings that the election results look like they are due to the error she found earlier, but his aide Stewart (Jeff Goldblum) drives her away. Dobbs is extremely shocked – like the rest of the world. While Dobbs and his crew move from shock to celebration, Eleanor is attacked in her home and forcefully given an injection. The next day at work she is extremely anxious. Her erratic behavior draws attention and concern. She is sent to the hospital, where a toxicology report reveals high levels of illegal drugs. While recovering in the hospital, she is visited by her work mate, Danny, who has just been promoted by Delacroy (which she thinks is an effort to buy him off). He tries to convince her that she has a drug habit and that no one will believe her. She decides that the person who will believe her is Dobbs. The company uses her toxicology report as a pretext to fire her.
Eleanor eventually makes her way to Jack Menken's birthday party. There, she unconvincingly impersonates an FBI agent in order to talk with Dobbs. Thinking that she needs a job, Dobbs gives her his phone number. She is unable get to the point about the election before Dobbs is pulled away. Later, the two dance, but Eleanor is still unable to tell Dobbs. That night, Danny calls her cell phone, asks if she has told Dobbs, and tries to convince her to let it go. Later, Dobbs tries to get back in contact with Eleanor by calling Delacroy's headquarters. James Hemming tells Dobbs that Eleanor has a drug problem. While watching Wheel of Fortune, Eleanor figures out the flaw in Delecroy's vote counting system. It favors candidates whose names contain double letters, with preference given to the double letters that come earliest in the alphabet, so that Dobbs beats Kellogg, which beats Mills. Eleanor calls Dobbs and he whisks her off to a paintball fight. She leads up to telling him about the election, but he interrupts to tell her he already knows about her drug problem. She denies having a drug problem, but is interrupted and then pulled along to Thanksgiving dinner. At dinner, she finally gets him alone to tell him that the election vote count was wrong, then leaves. Dobbs wrestles with the idea that he should not have been elected as president. He calls and tells Eleanor, who calls and tells Danny, who provides the information to Stewart, that Dobbs plans to break the news to the public at 11am the next day. Delacroy pre-empts Dobbs' public announcement with one of their own, stating that Eleanor was caught attempting to throw the election for Dobbs, but that her efforts had no impact on the polls. Dobbs' team turns against Eleanor, but Dobbs doesn't. Eleanor sees the news and becomes increasingly concerned, a feeling that is soon justified as Delacroy agents break into the hotel room where she is staying and take her computer.
Desperate, Eleanor first flees. Needing to charge her phone so she can call Dobbs, she goes to a mall, where she is followed and apprehended by a Delacroy agent but escapes. Later that night, she calls Dobbs from a pay phone. She manages to reach him but is not able to communicate much before the Delacroy agent drives his truck into the phone booth. She escapes just before the collision but is injured and hospitalized a second time. Dobbs goes to the scene and talks with Eleanor, although he cannot understand her logic about double letters. Later, as he is about to board his private plane at BWI, he sees Delacroy's private plane on the tarmac. During the Weekend Update segment of the sketch comedy TV show Saturday Night Live, he finally announces to the public that the vote counting were flawed and that he should not be president. Dobbs declines to accept victory in a phony election, and another election is held with Dobbs choosing not to participate. President Kellogg wins a second term, and, perhaps due to Dobbs, has a better second term. Dobbs returns to his career as a talk show host, with Eleanor as his producer and later as his wife. The Delacroy executives are arrested. The last seconds of the film shows a mock TIME magazine cover with Dobbs chosen as Person of the Year.Robin Williams as Tom Dobbs
Christopher Walken as Jack Menken
Laura Linney as Eleanor Green
Lewis Black as Eddie Langston
Jeff Goldblum as Stewart
David Alpay as Danny
Rick Roberts as James Hemmings
Karen Hines as Alison McAndrews
Linda Kash as Jenny Adams
Jacqueline Pillon as Security Tech
Universal Studios released Man of the Year theatrically on October 13, 2006. It grossed $37.3 million in North America and $3.9 million in other territories for a total worldwide gross of $41.2 million. Universal Studios Home Entertainment released it on DVD on February 20, 2007, where it grossed another $25.1 million in sales.
Director Barry Levinson originally wanted Howard Stern for the starring role of Tom Dobbs, which would make it Stern's only second movie role after starring as himself in Private Parts. Scheduling conflicts with Stern's debut on Sirius radio prevented him from taking on the part.
The soundtrack includes:"Political World" by Bob Dylan
"Hurdy Gurdy Man" by Donovan
"They Can't Take That Away From Me" (George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin) by Michael Bolton
"Cobrastyle" by Teddybears
"Sotto le stelle del jazz" by Italian jazz artist Paolo Conte
Man of the Year received mostly negative reviews, with review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes giving it a rating of 21% based on reviews from 142 critics. Most of the critics noted the abrupt change in tone from comedy to conspiracy film. Many critics rated the entire movie negatively, calling the early humor of the film uninspired and less biting than that of the real-life television comedians Dobbs was modeled after (such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert); others argued that the early political humor of the film was both funny and on-target, but argued that the change in tone to a conspiracy film damaged its effectiveness, and many criticized the love story aspect between Williams and Linney. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com wrote, "It's a comedy, a political thriller, a love story: Barry Levinson's Man of the Year tries to be all things to all people and fails on every count – a little like the generic, ineffectual politicians it's pretending to excoriate". James Berardinelli of ReelViews felt it "makes telling points and has a lot to say, but it loses its voice along with its consistency around the mid-way point". Josh Larsen of the Sun Publications line of newspapers asked straight out, "What is it about Robin Williams that he often appears in these wild misfires, pictures that are so full of promise yet so disastrous in execution?" Frank Lovece of Film Journal International placed the well-regarded Levinson's challenge and failure within a larger context: "If satire is what dies on a Saturday night, then political-satire movies are what die on Fridays. Maybe we're used to the TV topicality of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Real Time with Bill Maher, whereas movies are months in the making, turning their current events into history. Yet successful satire needn't be topical – witness Network, Election, Dr. Strangelove – because some verities are timeless. Since when, after all, hasn't there been a populist saying, 'Throw the rascals out'?"
The film debuted at #3 at the box office its opening weekend, with a theatrical gross of $12,550,000.