FILM / Room at the top

As an actor, Tim Robbins' most distinctive characteristic is his smile, a facial expression of transcendent smugness. Smile that smile in a public place in America, and sooner or later you'll be accused of having a . . . well, the phrase translates as 'coprophagous grin'. The smugness of Robbins' smile, though, is somehow infectious. Although it represents nothing more sincere than the self-belief of the characters he plays, it is no less winning for that. His smile of smugness under pressure was one of the main reasons audiences of Altman's The Player couldn't bring themselves to dislike a character almost free of redeeming characteristics.

Now Robbins has written and directed a film about the ultimate smiling game: American politics. He also stars, as a young candidate for senatorial office, the vote-catching face of materialistic backlash against the Sixties. Robbins could almost have been grooming himself for the part of Bob Roberts (15). In early roles, like the one he played opposite Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, he could look like something of a slob, but he has acquired a gloss without becoming slick. He looks fresher now than he did at the beginning of his career. These days, he wears a suit as well as anyone since Gary Cooper, with an elegance that never seems citified. There is something inherently funny about his presence, as a big man who doesn't seem to take up a lot of space. In the opening sequence of Bob Roberts, there is a subtly satisfying shot of the candidate shaking hands with a voter. Robbins is standing in the street, while his companion is on the pavement, but Robbins is still the taller. It's as if the voter is shaking hands with what is already a photographic cut-out, slightly larger than life-size.

As a novice director of film (he is Artistic Director of the Actors' Gang, a prize-winning theatre ensemble based in Los Angeles) Robbins hedges his bets by presenting his fiction film as a documentary made by one of his characters, Terry Manchester (Brian Murray). What this means in effect is that nothing we see is sincerely meant, unless we like it and want it to be. What did you make of the closing shots, a rather shaky pan round a monumental inscription vowing eternal hostility to tyranny of every type, and then a meaningful shot of a bust of Jefferson? You thought that was hokey? Yes, wasn't it a priceless parody of the crappy rhetoric of television documentaries? Oh, you liked it, it moved you? Actually, it represents the director's feeling that a great tradition of political thought has been trivialised and betrayed. The only thing in Bob Roberts for which Tim Robbins takes real responsibility is the closing music, after the images have stopped altogether: an unreleased Woody Guthrie song, 'I've Got To Know', a scratchy protest from the time before anger, too, had to be slick and guarded, forever conscious of its market.

By drawing a bead on both politics and the media Robbins ensures that the more difficult, elusive target is always being overshadowed by the easier one. Bob Roberts is full of knowing parodies of TV anchor-persons, loading their scripted words with arbitrary stresses or else working on their fake rapport with their colleagues on screen. So what? There's only one confrontation in the whole film between figures of approximately equal weight - Roberts and Kelly Noble (Lynne Thigpen), a black woman who interviews him on live television - and that takes place unwisely early in the film. Noble very slickly announces her hostility to Roberts and everything he stands for seconds before the broadcast starts. She's not above trying to wrong-foot him, and she is smooth enough herself not to let him smooth his way out of trouble. When he says, 'Need I say more?', she replies crisply, 'Yes you need say more.'

At the end of the interview, when she hasn't managed to pin Roberts down, her anger boils over at a black member of his team. 'Does getting in on the ground floor mean checking your skin at the door?' she hisses. For once the anger seems real, the issues seem real.

Bob Roberts is full of familiar faces well used. Ray Wise, Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks, plays Roberts' public relations manager, fraudulent to his dyed hair-ends. Alan Rickman is memorably sour as the money man in the background, giving a suitably ghastly flavour to a line like 'Excuse me, I have to go pray.' Best of all is Gore Vidal as the incumbent senator, Brickley Paiste. By letting Vidal play himself, albeit in a fantasy version as a has-been who is at least an office-holder, Robbins plays a game similar to Robert Altman's in his sophisticated Tanner films for television.

Vidal professes a great admiration for Robbins' ability as a director to seize opportunities, tracing it back to his experience with Altman. What he turns out to mean is that Robbins sensibly let Vidal do the talking. In a series of monologues direct to camera, with which Robbins punctuates his film, Vidal performs his customary sardonic biopsy on the American body politic. Vidal's hobby-horses are a lot sounder of wind than most people's but Robbins uses these little lectures largely for effect. They are gloriously patrician sound bites, but sound bites none the less. It isn't so much that Robbins endorses Vidal's thinking, as that he uses him to broaden his film's appeal, exploiting Vidal's weary suavity to balance the rather pumped-up idealistic anger of his doomed investigative-journalist figure, Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito).

The pseudo-documentary structure of Bob Roberts prevents Robbins from looking behind the scenes, or else provides an excuse for his lack of curiosity. Even in the portrayal of his hero, his script is strangely erratic. At his most frightening, the candidate is plausible as a canny conservative maverick, a folk-singing, white-collar demagogue who steals Bob Dylan's style to revoke his message. Then Robbins can't resist giving the character lines that get a laugh but which only a fool would say, replying to a get-well card from a child, for instance, after an assassination attempt with the admonition, 'Be good in school and don't do crack, it's a ghetto drug'.

There is a callow cynicism about much of the film, as befits political satire aimed at the apolitical. There is no interest here in the actual manoeuvres of public life, the hoops that the uncorrupt must jump through as much as the corrupt. In the end Bob Roberts is more a shrewd move than a clever movie, a satire that traffics in smiles rather than teeth.

Opens tonight: details on facing page.

(Photographs omitted)