Film Review: “Swing Vote”

August 5, 2008

Ah, yes, it’s an election year.

If it matters to you who the unemployed, alcoholic, deadbeat Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) votes for — Republican President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer, rather debonair) or Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper, not playing someone evil or crazy for once, and pulling it off) — then you shouldn’t see “Swing Vote.” This isn’t the sort of film that engages in partisan politics. The thrust of it is, both sides will do just about whatever it takes to win, though it may make them sick to their stomachs, and that’s something to keep in mind as we approach this year’s presidential election. Although the movie certainly does tilt a little to the left, it’s more balance than you’ll find in almost any other politically charged motion picture.

Bud has a precocious daughter, Molly (first-timer Madeline Carroll), who’s a lot smarter than he is, and who really wants him to vote — after all, it’s part of everyone’s social contract with America. So she registers for him, and she goes to the polling place to wait for him … and eventually she tries to vote for him. But due to a malfunction, Bud’s vote doesn’t count — and as it turns out, that’s the one that will decide who will be occupying the Oval Office come January.

The film is largely carried by an endearing performance by Costner as Bud, who has recently lost his job at an egg factory due to poor attendance and an incident involving drinking beer and the resulting loss of coordination. Bud is “a dumbass,” in the words of Bill Maher, who (in the movie) trashes him on his show “Real Time.” Early on, when he’s asked who’s got his vote, he grins and asks the reporter who’s running — and he may be smiling, but he’s not joking. Bud’s got a heart, though, and his heart’s desire is for America to be a great place, and for his daughter to be proud of him.

The candidates do, of course, have campaign managers, and it’s these men who are charged with winning at all costs. Art Crumb (Nathan Lane) is Greenleaf’s campaign manager; he’s never won. Martin Fox (Stanley Tucci) is Boone’s; he’s never lost. It’s Crumb who’s the much more interesting one, the idealist who’s always played the game nicely and lost, and now is willing to do whatever it will take to get the right guy (by his estimation) into office.

The two of them bend over backward, throwing parties for Bud, introducing him to celebrities and having their candidates change their positions on major issues based on Bud’s poorly thought-out responses to questions from reporters — in particular a local reporter by the name of Kate Madison (Paula Patton), who does something so ethical at the end that you won’t believe it at all.

Unfortunately, the movie’s lighthearted tone is brought down by Molly, whose character is so irritatingly glum and negative that the movie becomes borderline unwatchable at times. This is no reflection on Carroll, who put on a fine performance in her first time on the big screen, but rather on the otherwise excellent screenplay by Joshua Michael Stern (who also directed, and is similarly at fault there) and Jason Richman. Dealing with Molly’s whining is supposed to be Bud’s job, not the audience’s, but we’re forced to watch as the movie becomes bogged down in it.

Just as it’s Costner’s performance that draws you into “Swing Vote,” it’s his heartfelt turnaround at the end of it that’s the film’s saving grace.

There are a lot of big-name movies out right now, but few of them offer the message and memorable moments — such as the final scene, which could not be more poignantly set up — that “Swing Vote” has, and in spades.

Your movie ticket purchase is a kind of vote, too. I suggest you cast it for this film.

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