Review: 'Swing Vote'

Political comedy uses wild premise to serve up a civics lessons without much substance.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Kevin Costner is in full-blown Everyman mode in "Swing Vote," a political comedy that also tries to pull your heartstrings.

With the upcoming presidential election looming, "Swing Vote" is certainly timely, but it also strains to be timeless. It's as if a moldering old Frank Capra script had been retrieved from the Hollywood vaults. Dusted off and brought up to date, it's still the same old Capracorn – minus the populist pizzazz he might have provided.

Bud Johnson (Costner) is a good-natured goof-off with custody of his precocious 12-year-old daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll). He spends most of his time napping and guzzling beer and getting canned from jobs. But he's not a bad guy, really – just aimless. He doesn't follow politics and doesn't much care who wins the presidency, but Molly makes it her business to see that he votes – it doesn't even matter for whom. When he screws up on election day, she steps in for him. Through a series of implausibilities too risible to relate here, Bud's vote, which went unprocessed, becomes a do-over. Oh, and his choice will become the next president.

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There's no point in deriding the ridiculousness of this premise. But, having set up this every-vote-counts scenario, why didn't director Joshua Michael Stern and his co-screenwriter Jason Richman put some teeth in it? This is the kind of "political" movie in which all sides are given equal time. Republicans and Democrats are made to look equally good-bad and no real-world issues are introduced except as the stuff of one-liners. It's all so mushily ecumenical.

When the network TV folks and demonstrators of all stripes and creeds descend on Bud's tiny town of Texico, New Mexico, the circus-like atmosphere is remarkably well-mannered. (About the worst thing that happens is that an obese cameraman leans on Bud's car.) Incumbent Republican President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) courts Bud by bringing him aboard the presidential plane for a chat. Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) goes for a more down-home approach, setting up a shindig where Bud can jam with his band performing covers of Willie Nelson hits.

Grammer is surprisingly robust as the president. Maybe he should think about going into politics for real. (After all, if image is indeed everything these days, why not?) The casting – or I should say, the miscasting – of Hopper is difficult to fathom. He tries mightily to look noble but he carries too many stoned-hippie vibes to pull it off.

Costner is pleasant enough but his affability here carries too much ideological baggage. At his best, in films like "Bull Durham" and "Tin Cup," he could be marvelously easygoing and yet temperamental. Those guys had gumption. Costner wasn't trying to be an Everyman, and so, paradoxically, he sort of became one anyway. He brought us into the commonality of his characters' experiences.

In "Swing Vote," Bud's ordinariness is intended to certify his deep-down all-American decency. The fact that this single father spends most of his time loafing is presented as "cute." Molly is exasperated but, of course, since we're also in "Paper Moon" territory here, she truly loves him and is undamaged by his shenanigans. She just wants Bud to be an upstanding voter.

Molly hammers home the point that one should not give up on the system, but it's not clear that Bud ever bought into it. If he at least was exposed to a range of policy issues by the two candidates, his trajectory from slacker to model citizen might have made sense. But in the world of "Swing Vote," it's enough that you vote – why or for whom is secondary.

The filmmakers want to fashion a civics lesson but they don't bother to include anything of substance. The only time they stretch their necks out – and it's only a millimeter or two – is when they show the two candidates shamelessly pandering for Bud's vote. Of course, they come to see the error of their ways. No one, after all, ever won an election in America by pandering to the populace.

And speaking of shamelessness: The high civic tone of "Swing Vote" is belied by its vast array of product placements. (Why do you think Bud is so named?) It also showcases a galaxy of real-world newscasters and commentators, including Chris Matthews, Arianna Huffington, Bill Maher, and Larry King. I find this sort of display unseemly – further proof, if any were needed, that news and entertainment are becoming indistinguishable. The pièce de résistance will come when Larry King gives this film a good review. Grade: C (Rated PG-13 for language.)

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