Swing Vote (2008)

Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 08/01/08 13:50:24

"As confusing as a Florida butterfly ballot."
3 stars (Average)

Sitting through ‘Swing Vote’ is about like visiting a polling place in a city where you’ve never been before, staring at a list of candidates whose names are completely unfamiliar. By sheer chance you might make some worthwhile selections, but there won’t be much reason or heart in your choices.

Director Joshua Michael Stern (who shares writing credit with Jason Richman) attempts to juggle political satire, a sentimental father and daughter story and good old fashioned patriotism and only occasionally finds the right tone and approach. It’s as if Stern were asked to make one of three films, but made the mistake of choosing “All of the Above” instead.

As a result, the film is only fitfully satisfying despite a fine cast. One decent move is featuring Kevin Costner as Ernest “Bud” Johnson, who seems to have earned his nickname for his prolific consumption of the King of Beers.

It’s obvious why his wife Larissa (Mare Winningham) has left him. He’s working a dead end job at an egg distribution plant, when he can actually emerge from his bed. He also lives in a messy trailer with a floor decorated by unpaid bills.

Miraculously, Bud and Larissa have produced a brilliant and idealistic grade school daughter named Molly (terrific newcomer Madeline Carroll). It takes no effort to determine that she is the real adult in the family. Not only does she go to the trouble of raising Bud from a drunken stupor, she even cooks his meals.

Upset with Bud’s lack of concern for his civic duties, Molly sneaks into voting booth and manages to forge Bud’s credentials. Normally, this bit of juvenile voter fraud might get lost like a hanging chad.

But that evening’s election is so close that Molly’s electronically mangled vote could determine the presidency. Bud is informed he must cast his vote again, even though he didn’t vote or has only the slightest clue about the issues in the campaign.

A bewildered Bud finds himself being courted by the Republican incumbent president Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and his Democratic opponent Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper). The two lavish gifts on the cash-strapped Bud. They even change their positions on issues based on off-the-cuff remarks from the only voter who matters at this point in the race.

Watching Grammer and Hopper in phony political ads specifically designed to appeal to Bud’s shallow, redneck sensibilities is side-splitting. Both are veterans of commercials and seem to enjoy lampooning how shallow and misleading most political spots are.

Costner himself is delightful as the underachieving Bud. As with “The Upside of Anger,” Costner has demonstrated that he can play drunken losers just as ably as he can action heroes. He also projects enough dignity to make Bud’s attempts to deal with the gravity of his choice seem convincing.

Stern and Richman have difficult balancing satire and sentiment and quickly lose momentum. Despite genuinely funny performances from the leads, the film feels protracted and longer than its two-hour running time. The exchanges between the candidates and their Machiavellian campaign managers (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane) are shallow and underdeveloped.

Stern really doesn’t demonstrate enough insight into the political process to make this stuff work. The cronies desire to sell out their candidates’ principles gets old quickly.

“Swing Vote” is remarkably similar to Frank Capra’s 30’s comedies “Mr. Deeds Comes to Town” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” As in several of Capra’s films, there’s a sharp, tough female reporter (this time played by Paula Patton, “Déjŕ vu”).

A first generation immigrant from Sicily, Capra had a rare gift for making viewers want to leave the theater proudly waiving the American flag, while acknowledging that our fine nation had room for improvement.

Stern have trouble making this paradox convincing. It would take a unique mind to make the contradiction credible, but it also didn’t hurt that Capra filled his movies with dozens of memorable supporting characters.

Gary Cooper may have been one of the screen’s greatest stars, but Margaret Seddon and Margaret McWade stole “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” from him by playing a couple of hilarious older sisters. Most of the supporting cast this time around are stuck with thin stock characters, so it’s hard to get worked about what happens once Costner and Carroll leave the screen.

Perhaps the film’s running time could have been helped by cutting a scene where Costner performs a forgettable country-rock tune. Costner can carry a tune, but the sequence serves as a reminder of the anemic nature of the rest of the film.

The film has its charms, but it’s easy to imagine viewers voting with their feet to catch some other movie.

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