A film review by Jon Newman
Copyright 1992 Jon Newman
Directed and written by Tim Robbins
BOB ROBERTS is a quirky, biting satire on modern politics and the "new conservative" movement. The title character, Bob Roberts (played by Tim Robbins), is a stockbroker, folk singer and amateur fencer who runs for a U.S. Senate seat from Pennsylvania. He does not represent any single political figure, but viewers will see in him traces of many real personages, from Pat Robertson to (most definitely) Ross Perot. The film sprays abuse in all directions, from pandering politicians to poll-obsessed reporters to fanatic camp followers. I recommend BOB ROBERTS to anyone who intends to vote this November, and I recommend it even more strongly to anyone who presently doesn't.
The film presents itself as a mock-documentary, following in the footsteps of THIS IS SPINAL TAP. The rarely seen hand behind the camera follows candidate Bob Roberts's campaign in his satellite-linked tour bus, where Roberts' aides simultaneously manage his campaign and his speculative stock dealings. Interspersed with this campaign commentary are interviews with Roberts' parents, fans, incumbent campaign opponent, and a bedraggled heckler from the alternative press who badgers his campaign with accusations about alleged links with Iran-Contra, misuse of government funds, and other half-paranoid, half-believable claims.
BOB ROBERTS also mixes in two not-quite-funny faux MTV music videos, and a distressing amount of Roberts' smug folk music, such as his paean to his scapegoats, lefty college students and lazy welfare bums, "(They'll) Complain and Complain and Complain." This music was written by David and Tim Robbins, and sung without much talent by Tim Robbins. A fellow film-goer told me that no soundtrack will be released, to prevent the music from being (in the film-goer's words) "misused"; Robbins isn't much of a singer though, and I can't imagine that anyone would want to hear this music ever again.
Tim Robbins in the title role holds center stage, not surprising given that he also wrote and directed BOB ROBERTS. There are, however, a number of big names in supporting roles and cameos. Notable among these is Alan Rickman as Roberts' shady power-behind-the-throne, fighting congressional inquiries on Iran-Contra and the S&L bailout as he guides his protege's campaign. James Spader and Susan Sarandon appear as toadying TV news anchors, and Ray Wise (Leland Palmer in TWIN PEAKS) plays one of Robert's campaign aides.
Another presence to note is novelist and political pundit Gore Vidal (!), who turns in an excellent and heartfelt performance as Roberts' rival in the campaign. Vidal is playing himself here, and uses this platform as an opportunity to rail against the "real government," the National Security Council. As such, he does slip a bit off the edge of believability for a character who is supposedly a 30-year Senate incumbent. Still, his performance certainly compares favorably to William F. Burroughs' weakly acted cameo in DRUGSTORE COWBOY.
While I did enjoy and appreciate BOB ROBERTS, I must admit that this film did, quite literally, make me sick. The film's "documentary" pretext implies hand-held-seeming camerawork, and the constant shaking and weaving hold little appeal for the eye, still less for the inner ear. If you don't have your Dramamine handy, you might try sitting toward the back of the theatre.