Filmmaker Firsts: Tim Robbins

#12: Bob Roberts (1992) – dir. Tim Robbins

This satire tells the story of a young “rebel” Republican whose run for a Pennsylvania Senate seat is marred by allegations, scandals and assassination attempts. As screenwriter, director, lead actor and singer/performer/writer of original music, Tim Robbins creates a folksinging politico who is reminiscent of Lee Atwater and George Wallace while singing Woody Guthrie-type ballads that lambast liberals.

Roberts’ main platform is that the 1960s are over and that radicals should be eliminated. Throughout the film there are references made to Bob Dylan, mocking the iconography of his career. Roberts is all things to all people: self-made Wall Street millionaire, champion of the common people and vehemently opposed to actual important issues like racism and women’s rights.

The campaign trail is headed by manager Lukas Hart III, played by Alan Rickman. While I enjoy Rickman in most anything, here he seems to be straining to play the role. As Vincent Canby wrote in his New York Times review: “Mr. Rickman is not a subtle actor. The minute he comes on the screen, he is so arrogant, shifty and Mephistophelean that it seems likely someone would have checked out his connections before it actually happens.” Rickman isn’t even in the film long enough to make much of an impression when he does show up.

Roberts has some nutty followers, including Jack Black in his big-screen debut. The film has a seemingly endless number of well-known actors and singers making appearances: Giancarlo Esposito, Ray Wise, Brian Murray, Harry Lennix, Kelly Willis, David Strathairn, James Spader, Pamela Reed, Helen Hunt, Peter Gallagher, Lynne Thigpen, Susan Sarandon, Fred Ward, Fisher Stevens, John Cusack, Bob Balaban, etc. It’s fun watching for those faces. I just wish there had been more of a focus on some of those characters since many of them are wasted in their too-brief scenes.

Of the film’s many supporting roles I think my favorite is Gore Vidal as the incumbent senator, Roberts’ Democrat opponent who is excellently named Brickley Paiste. Vidal is one of the film’s voices of reason, quite effective in his witty little jabs at the Bob Roberts character. Like other characters, Paiste has far too little screen time. In fact, the whole movie feels too short for the story it wants to tell. The ending feels abrupt, not bringing resolution to the narrative. I appreciate all the work that Tim Robbins put into his first directorial feature, but I suspect that his subsequent films, Dead Man Walking (1995) and Cradle Will Rock (1999), are better crafted.

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