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Flashback: on 1992’s Bob Roberts

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Recently, I revisited “Bob Roberts”. More folks need to see “Bob Roberts”. I have no idea why Tim Robbins stopped directing features after three exceptional films in the 1990s (Oscar-winning “Dead Man Walking” in 1995, and the marvelous “Cradle Will Rock” in 1999, were the other two), but it was a loss for us all. And, 24 years later, “Bob Roberts” just may be the perfect representative for our current United States political climate. Honestly, no matter which side you belong to, with only ten days left in this scurrilous campaign, it really comes down to just one thing. Which con are you falling for? Because there’s plenty of bullshit to listen to on BOTH sides (yes, one is undoubtedly worse, so without mentioning the name, I’ll say that my vote is not being cast for HIM). And, “Bob Roberts”, in slick mockumentary-style, demonstrates for you just how that bullshit con COULD (will?!) occur.

Bob Roberts (Mr. Robbins conjuring Mr. Welles, by starring in, writing and directing his behind-the-camera debut) is a conservative Republican running for the United States Senate in 1990. He is a slick and handsome folk singer, who campaigns by vigorously waving the America flag, starring in music videos dressed as Revolutionary War heroes, and performing concert songs lashing out at the drug addicts, homeless, jobless, and immigrants. He appears on late night television (a thinly veiled “Saturday Night Live”, a show in which Robbins apparently first hatched this character a few years prior), has a 1960s bashing row with an African-American local newswomen, and funds campaign ads that falsely accuse his Democratic opponent of being a child molester. That opponent is incumbent democratic Senator Brickley Paiste (a wondrous Gore Vidal, in a particularly inspired bit of casting). Bob Roberts’ political journey, is being captured on film by British documentarian Terry Manchester (a smooth Brian Murray), and the camera catches the rise of Mr. Roberts cult following, his triumphs, his missteps, along with his lies and contradictions. But his popularity explodes after an apparent assassination attempt, by the radical black journalist, Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito, shining in the movie’s most difficult role). But did Raplin actually pull the trigger?  Also, was the now reportedly partially paralyzed Roberts actually even shot? No matter…Roberts is now surging in the polls.

A large portion of “Bob Roberts” is out-and-out great. Watching Roberts woo his rabid followers (Jack Black as Roger, and Matt McGrath as Burt, are both wonderfully possessed), the delicious defenses put forth by campaign leaders Chet MacGregor (a post just “Twin Peaks”, Ray Wise), and a deliciously fervent Lukas Hart (the late Alan Rickman), and the borderline (but just borderline) silly “news bites” supplied by a slew of famous cameos (James Spader, Susan Sarandon, Fred Ward, Helen Hunt). The Dylan-esque flamboyances, the Limbaugh-like parodies–all of this stuff is sharply on message. But there’s still a roughness to the edges here. Robbins lacks the finesse and polish of the more savvy debuting filmmakers (that arrived in his sophomore outing, however). Some will claim that’s a strength here, but there were times when I felt his inexperience was jarring. Certainly not a canyon though–just a few bumps in the road. For instance, Roberts’ “fencing meltdown” is decidedly overblown. But, overall, it remains so acute in its dissection, that I tend to forgive these minor transgressions. In fact, I’m labeling “Bob Roberts” Tim Robbins’ weakest effort as a director. But it’s still an absolute must-experience. Especially now.

Grade: sometimes it’s an A-, sometimes it’s a B+. Flip a coin.

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