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Spotlight on: Tim Robbins' Bob Roberts

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Tim Robbins' Bob Roberts

Poet, journeyman, folksinger, senatorial candidate -- those are how his fans describe Bob Roberts, the subject of a documentary by Terry Mitchell (really a "mockumentary" written and directed by its star, Tim Robbins). The camera follows Roberts around on his campaign trail against incumbent Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal) where he mostly presents the issues in songs, released on albums with Dylanesque titles like The Freewheelin' Bob Roberts and The Times They Are A-Changin' Back.

What I find most amazing is the ability of Robbins (and brother David) to write songs for Roberts that portray a political ideology 180 degrees from their own, and that are darn catchy to boot. A soundtrack of all the songs (never released because Robbins didn't want them heard out of the context of satire) would surely have been a solid seller -- but likely to what Robbins would have considered the wrong people.

Like in The Player, Robbins uses his baby face to make us sympathize with what is essentially a despicable character. Also as in that movie, many cameos enhance what we're watching. Seeing James Spader, Helen Hunt, Susan Sarandon, Peter Gallagher, Lynne Thigpen, Pamela Reed, Fred Ward, and Fisher Stevens deliver news pieces on Roberts, particularly within this documentary setting, is something that I can only describe as surreal.

The behind-the-scenes shots of campaigning are slow at best, often tedious. Alan Rickman plays the mind behind it all with his trademark over-the-top subtlety. The performances are all good, but Bob Roberts, really a one-trick pony to begin with, takes up too much of the viewer's time. A hackneyed subplot, involving radical journalist Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito) trying to sabotage Roberts' campaign, is unsure of itself. Are we supposed to support this man because Roberts is so obviously not what he seems, or dismiss him as the "lunatic" he is presented to be?

It's in the "moments" that Bob is best. The video for "Wall Street Rap" uses the much-mimicked titlecard aspect of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" while a scene where Roberts meets the local sheriff is taken straight from Don't Look Back. Meanwhile, in a sharp parody of the politics of Saturday Night Live (where Robbins debuted the Roberts character in a short film), Roberts goes on Cutting Edge Live as a musical guest. The host (John Cusack, who, to date, has made six films with Robbins) refuses to go on in protest and during the broadcast, assistant Carol (June Stein) gets herself fired by pulling the plug on the whole show.

But the darkly humorous tone of Bob Roberts becomes far too bitter and jaded for comfort when a chain of events revealng Roberts to be a liar goes on far too long and chooses a conventional way to wrap up.

Bob Roberts is a good idea that, unfortunately, runs itself dry. It would have best been suited to a shorter format -- an hour special on cable, perhaps, or as more short films on SNL, focusing on the "moments" above. As it is, there is a lot to like about it, but too much to like all of it.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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