Swing Vote has a premise that is extremely contrived. It goes to almost absurd lengths to set that premise up, and even then it strains credibility. If you can't look past that and accept it for what it is - an entry road into exploring a bigger subject - then your eyes will get tired from all the rolling they will inevitably do. But if you can, you'll discover a surprisingly funny and astute satire of the two-party political system.
Kevin Costner plays Bud Johnson, a boozy, apathetic egg factory employee from a small New Mexico town. Bud lives in a run-down trailer with his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll). She's really the adult in the household, constantly urging Bud to get his act together and fly right. He repeatedly lets her down. The tension between them comes to a head on Election Day. Molly has been studying the political process in school and wants Bud to participate in it, as all grown-ups should. She waits for him at the local polling place, but Bud chooses instead to get wasted at a nearby saloon. Frustrated, Molly sneaks into a booth and tries to vote for him. A computer error occurs at this exact moment, leaving the ballot in the machine but the vote uncounted.
Bud is then visited in the middle of the night by state voting officials who have tracked him down via the ballot number. It turns out that the Presidential election is tied in terms of electoral votes. New Mexico is the swing state that will call it. And the two candidates have the exact same number of votes in the state. The law gives Bud ten days to recast his vote and break the tie. Under Molly's suggestion, he doesn't own up to the fact that he never set foot in a polling place; instead, he plays along, allowing himself to be wooed by the two men running for office while the media relentlessly covers his every move. To him, it's all little more than a goof; to Molly, it's a priceless opportunity for Bud to finally find his voice.
Okay, so the odds of this premise happening are…let's see…about a gazillion to one, even considering the close call that was the 2004 Florida election. However, the improbable concept needs to be in place for Swing Vote to do what it really wants to do, namely to examine the distorted nature of our political process. The film has particular enmity for the way politicians employ strategists who focus more on how to win than on how to make America a better place. In this case, the Democratic advisor (Nathan Lane) and the Republican advisor (Stanley Tucci) devise ever more outrageous ways for their candidates to court Bud's favor. "If you don't win, you can't do all the things you set out to do," Tucci's character tells current President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer). It's a win-at-all-costs moment, and that kind of thinking helps explain how Boone authorizes one of Bud's personal heroes to suddenly appear on his doorstep as a sort of "soft pedal" influence. The other side has tricks of its own that are every bit as questionable.
For me, the funniest thing in Swing Vote is a running joke about political ads. In their attempts to win Bud's vote, both sides must first figure out what he stands for. This is easier said than done, as Bud doesn't know himself. Misconstruing some of his remarks, the Republican President suddenly switches his platform to become pro-gay and pro-environment, while the Democratic candidate, Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), reluctantly condemns immigration and a woman's right to choose an abortion. In an era where real politicians are constantly accused of selling out their true beliefs for a vote, this element of the movie is particularly stinging.
Centering the story is Kevin Costner. He has always emitted great intelligence on-screen, so it seems a bit unnatural to think of him playing someone as dim-witted as Bud Johnson, yet he plays the character brilliantly. In his hands, Bud is a lost soul, a guy who stopped believing in possibilities and therefore lost interest in his own country. Annoyed by low wages, outsourcing, and lack of adequate health care, he conveniently ignores the fact that taking part in the "civil contract" of voting could help resolve these problems. By the end, of course, he learns his lesson, and the movie finds time for a climactic rousing speech that would seem at home in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Costner is matched by a strong supporting cast. Lane and Tucci are hilarious as the victory-minded political strategists, while Grammer and Hopper do a nice job of avoiding clichés as the two party candidates. (Thankfully, Swing Vote is thoroughly non-partisan.) My favorite performance comes from young Madeline Carroll, who projects a spunky yet sarcastic intelligence. Watching her, I kept thinking that she is like a younger Ellen Page. Carroll is terrific here, marking her as someone to watch.
Not everything works as well as it would like to. The movie is kind of clunky at the beginning as it sets up the premise (although that does improve once the story gets rolling). There's also a subplot involving an ambitious reporter (Paula Patton) who is desperate to break Bud's story. While Patton does a fine job, the film simply doesn't have the time to develop her thread as fully as it should, and so we get a standard arc about a cutthroat reporter who considers selling her soul for a big story.
Yes, there are flaws, but for me, the delights outweighed them. I liked the performances as well as the not-so-subtle jabs at politicians whose views are effectively up for sale. And I also liked the ending, which I will not reveal here. All that matters is that Swing Vote ends exactly as it should, in a way that's meaningful and inspiring. I have a feeling the studio dropped the ball by releasing the picture in August. It feels more like a fall movie than a summer movie, so it will probably have trouble competing against the dark knights and the mummies and the guys riding the Pineapple Express. Hopefully, though, good word of mouth will spread. This one was a very, very nice surprise.
( out of four)
Swing Vote is rated PG-13 for language. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Swing Vote
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