Though not quite as scathing and consistently hilarious as its hype would have us believe, "Bob Roberts" is nevertheless a funny and dark election-year satire by writer-director-star Tim Robbins, lampooning the political right and the extremes to which some of its constituents go.
The title character is a right-wing candidate for a Pennsylvania Senate seat that has been occupied for 30 years by a liberal incumbent (Gore Vidal, in an amusing portrayal).
Roberts is a self-made millionaire and popular folk singer who disdains the '60s as an empty era, proudly proclaiming that as a youth he rejected the commune lifestyle in which his mother tried to raise him and went out and got a job. On camera, his mother tells it a little differently.
"Bob Roberts," the movie, is done in a mock documentary style — similar to "This is Spinal Tap!" and the current "Husbands and Wives" — with a British television filmmaker trailing along with Roberts on the campaign trail and attempting to document a bit more than just what Roberts' publicists orchestrate.
The songs Robbins has penned (with his brother David Robbins) for this fictional candidate primarily parody Bob Dylan ("The Times Are Changin' Back"), though a little Woody Guthrie creeps in, as Roberts coaxes votes by singing about how we all want to get rich and should put "me" first. He even uses music videos (his "Wall Street Rap," done in the style of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" from "Don't Look Back," is a riot).
Along the way, there are spoofs of dirty tricks campaigning, political advertising on television and even TV news, with big-name performers doing cameo stints as anchors who try in vain to banter between stories, giggling at each other's mistakes — Susan Sarandon, James Spader, Pamela Reed, Fred Ward, Peter Gallagher, etc.
There's also a poke at "Saturday Night Live," with a show called "Cutting Edge Live" that features a Michael Lorne character (Bob Balaban) arguing with his liberal comic star (John Cusack), who is outraged at having Bob Roberts on the show. (This bit has a kicker that brings to mind "A Face In the Crowd.")
As the film winds down, the documentary style begins to wear a bit thin and a few scenes sag in the middle, and there are times when Robbins' own liberal leanings are too obviously in evidence.
But there's no denying that "Bob Roberts" is smart and hip, and when it's funny, it's very funny.
"Bob Roberts" is rated R for profanity in the "Cutting Edge Live" sequence. There is also some violence.