Director : Joshua Michael Stern
Screenplay : Jason Richman & Joshua Michael Stern
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Kevin Costner (Bud Johnson), Madeline Carroll (Molly Johnson), Paula Patton (Kate Madison), Kelsey Grammer (President Andrew Boone), Dennis Hopper (Donald Greenleaf), Nathan Lane (Art Crumb), Stanley Tucci (Martin Fox), George Lopez (John Sweeney), Judge Reinhold (Walter), Charles Esten (Lewis)
I haven’t spent much time reading up on the legalities of the electoral process, but the scenario posed in Swing Vote seems plausible enough. On Election Day in a dead-heat presidential battle, it all comes down to the five electoral votes from typical swing-state New Mexico, whose popular vote is split 50/50 with one ballot error. That ballot belongs to Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner), a lazy, alcoholic, recently laid-off slacker who didn’t even really vote. Rather, the ballot was cast by his precocious preteen daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll), who is as driven, intelligent, and civic-minded as Bud is lethargic, dim, and self-absorbed. Thus, the outcome of the presidential election comes down to Bud’s vote--quite literally, one man, one vote.
And, voilà, you have the broad parameters of an election-year satire that could have gone in any number of directions. It could have been a caustic satire. It could have been a Capra-corn fable about the power of the everyman. It could have been a politically heavy-minded drama about the corruption of the system. Any one of those choices might have worked, but whenever Swing Vote seems like it might be on the cusp of being something memorable, it is immediately nudged back into a murky gray zone that mixes and mingles a little bit of everything, as if the filmmakers were striving for exactly that which they lampoon the political process for doing: trying to be everything to everyone.
After the long-winded set-up that established the stakes, Bud and Molly find themselves caught in the hot spotlight of the media glare. As soon as his identity is revealed, representatives of every major media outlet descend on Bud’s tiny town of Texico, New Mexico, and camp outside his dingy trailer (which allows for a string of cameos by real-life media personalities, from Larry King to Bill Maher). Meanwhile, both presidential candidates also travel out west--the Republicans represented by the upright, legacy-seeking incumbent President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and the Democrats represented by the touchy-feely Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), who promises a “rainbow” White House. Each candidate has a ferociously ambitious campaign manager: the Republican Martin Fox (Stanley Tucci), who has never lost, and the Democrat Art Crumb (Nathan Lane), who has yet to win. While the film tries its best to avoid taking sides one way or the other, there is a clear tip-off when Lane bemoans his constantly being on the “right side” of the issues but still losing campaign after campaign.
However, despite all the politics in the air, Swing Vote spends a great deal of its energy expounding on the difficult relationship between Bud and Molly. Molly has essentially taken on the roles of both mother and spouse, rousing Bud from his hung-over slumber every morning, making his meals, reminding him of his responsibilities, and constantly rolling her eyes and wincing in frustration at his lackadaisical attitude about everything. For his part, Costner sinks well into a pit of genial languor, but this turns out to be one of the film’s main problems. While it clearly wants Bud to be a representative everyman, it also has to establish his litany of problems so that he may be redeemed in the final reel. Hence, we end up with a film that condescendingly suggests everyman status is best represented by alcoholism and an aversion to getting up and going to work. One can imagine a far more interesting film in which Costner’s character is a genuinely decent, but down-on-his-luck working man who finds himself in the crosshairs of the national political stage. Or, one could image a film in which Costner’s character is an utterly unrepentant jerk. The former might be too Jimmy Stewart and the latter too Neil La Bute, but at least it would have conviction. Swing State just feels mushy.
Despite its missed opportunities and awkward attempts to please all sectors, Swing Vote does have a few comic gems up its sleeve, particularly near the middle when the two candidates start shamelessly vying for Bud’s vote by courting him according to what he says in interviews, which tend to be thoughtless, tossed-off statements. Thus, we get Kelsey Grammer’s Republican proclaiming his acceptance of gay marriage while surrounded by a gaggle of queer stereotypes and Dennis Hopper’s Democrat intoning about the evils of abortion while kids on a playground explode one-by-one into symbolic puffs of smoke. It’s the closest the film comes to truly outrageous satire, and unfortunately it’s a brief flash in the pan for a film that never seem entirely sure of what it’s really about.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Touchstone Pictures