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Funny and disturbing Roberts satirizes American politics

Bob Roberts
Written and Directed by Tim Robbins.
Starring Tim Robbins,
Giancarlo Esposito, Ray Wise,
and Gore Vidal.
Loews Nickelodeon.

By Chris Roberge
Arts Editor

In a dark backstage area as an enthusiastic voice is heard yelling, "It's showtime!" After announcing his excitement, Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins) runs onto the stage to the cheers of his admiring fans. Thus begins Bob Roberts, a very funny and occasionally disturbing satire of American politics.

Roberts is one of the most interesting and memorable characters created by a film in quite a while. He is also one of the most reprehensible and depraved. The millionaire entertainer/entrepreneur/political candidate manages to be a cynosure at any event he attends, primarily because these events are for the most part carefully orchestrated press appearances and photo opportunities. For Roberts, every time is "showtime," and he is always a true master of the program. The meteoric rise of this right-wing radical folk singer is chronicled in Bob Roberts, a great mock documentary written and directed by Robbins.

As a boy, Bob Roberts quickly grew apart from his parents, whom he saw as "potheads" influenced by the 1960s, a time he describes as a "dark stain" on the history of his country. By the time he was an adult, Roberts had adopted folk singing as a medium for his conservative attitudes. His album, Times are Changing Back, becomes a huge hit, spawning singles such as "This Land was Made for Me" and "Wall Street Rap." He even creates a popular video for the latter, which features Robbins shuffling through cards reading "Make millions" while standing in an alley -- a scene borrowed heavily from Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Before long, Roberts transplants his agenda and its popularity into a bid for the Senate.

As a candidate, Roberts is an even bigger figure than he was as an entertainer, but then again his campaign, managed by Lucas Hart III (Alan Rickman) and public relations expert Chet MacGregor (Ray Wise), succeeds by packaging him as an entertainer. In one great moment, Roberts hosts a beauty pageant sponsored by an anti-drug organization which he founded, but it's clear that he is being showcased as the most "beautiful" person in the show. He sharply attacks the liberal politics of incumbent Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal), who nonetheless refuses to enter into a mudslinging war with him.

Roberts' plans are never entirely clear; the only two ideas he stresses are the individual's right to seek out maximum gain without making sacrifices for others, and, as the title of one of his songs says, "Drugs stink." In one "touching" moment, Roberts responds to a young girl who sends him a card with a letter thanking her and saying, "Be good in school and don't do crack. It's a ghetto drug."

One of the best aspects of Bob Roberts is its ability to parallel reality and satirize it without having to rely on much exaggeration. Roberts bashes the democratic Congress by blaming their liberal programs for all of the nation's problems. When someone from the press tries to bother him, he asks the journalist if he is a card-carrying member of the ACLU. When his lead over Paiste appears to be in jeopardy, Roberts reminds the voters of the alleged infidelities of his opponent and eventually airs the funniest negative ad ever created, painting Paiste as a drunken pawn of industry who likes to sleep with young girls. The most common references to reality, though, are much more serious allusions to Operation Desert Shield, which continued through the time of Roberts' fictional campaign. Here, more than anywhere else in his film, Robbins strongly uses his character's beliefs and actions to question those of President Bush.

But Bob Roberts satirizes more than just conservative ideology. Smartly, the film never allows any characters or ideas to remain totally free from criticism. Some of Robbins' sharpest attacks are aimed at television, which he sees as mainly a medium for the commercialization of politics. There are numerous cameos in the film by such actors as Peter Gallagher, Pamela Reed, Susan Sarandon, James Spader, and Fred Ward as ridiculously insubstantial news anchors, who are little more than smiling faces introducing the next entertaining human interest story. "Cutting Edge Live," a show so afraid of having a cutting edge that it panders to musical guest Roberts while censoring guest host John Cusack's political monologue, presents a jab at "Saturday Night Live."

Senator Paiste, wonderfully played by Gore Vidal, brings quietly stated passion and integrity to the role, yet remains a largely ineffectual politician who is simply too old-fashioned. Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito), an alternative news reporter, is one of the few people who tries to probe beyond Roberts' slick exterior, and the hints he uncovers of savings and loans scandals, drug running, and assassinations are shocking. But the movie's portrayal of Raplin tilts only slightly toward that of a man to be listened to, and away from that of a fanatic who hangs around college campuses.

Bob Roberts does suffer from one flaw: an occasional tendency to get too preachy about its subject. Toward the end of the film, Raplin is given too many sequences in which Esposito goes over the top in his performance and rattles off injustice after injustice to British documentarian Terry Manchester (Brian Murray). And in one poor scene, a television interviewer who calls Roberts a "cryptofascist clown" storms into her dressing room, where she launches into an unnecessary speech about why Roberts is bad for the country. But much more often than not, Robbins is amazingly adept at balancing the humorous and frightening elements of the story. When, in the last third of the movie, the tone becomes more serious, the movie remains very effective and convincing. Bob Roberts ends with Manchester visiting the memorials of Washington, D.C. and questioning the future of America, but the image does not come across as overblown or contrived. With this entertaining and disturbing film, Robbins has shown the relevance and importance of such questions.