Swing Vote’s clever premise, which would have seemed like pure science fiction no more than eight years ago, concerns a U.S. presidential election whose outcome hinges on a single misprocessed vote in a single county of a single state. And naturally, this being Hollywood and director Joshua Michael Stern being an obvious student of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, that vote ends up belonging to the most average of average Joes: Ernest “Bud” Johnson (Kevin Costner), a recently laid-off factory worker in the tumbleweed town of Texico, New Mexico. As Texico becomes the locus of a global media frenzy, both major-party candidates are forced to abandon their carefully market-tested platforms and stump speeches, their big-money backers and their vested special interests in order to campaign for the favor of a sole American voter. It follows that Bud isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the electoral shed, more likely to be found getting shit-faced at the corner bar than sitting at home in his double-wide watching The Situation Room. But hey, that’s America, right?
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Lo, what a natural-born farceur with a nuanced feel for small-town realities might have made of this! In the Alexander Payne or Jonathan Demme version of Swing Vote, I doubt that Bud’s poverty-line existence would be depicted in the same romanticized way it is here — that noble view of the lower classes (they’re suffering, but they’ve got spirit!) Hollywood has been plying for decades — or that the character would come saddled with one of those fast-talking, wise-beyond-her-years preteen tykes (newcomer Madeline Carroll) who seem to exist only in the movies. And I’d further wager that the movie’s two presidential candidates wouldn’t be as two-dimensional as lawn placards: Andrew Boone, the good-looking, jocular Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) who talks to Bud in football metaphors; and Donald Greenleaf, the diminutive, brainy, hopelessly urban Democratic hopeful (Dennis Hopper).
Stern (who also co-wrote the script with Jason Richman) is a touch too slick — and too soft — to pull off a truly incisive American political satire, but he’s also far from stupid, and the longer Swing Vote hangs around, the more engaging it becomes. It’s twice as smart as you have any reason to expect but still only half as smart as you wish it were. You could argue that any movie about a 2008 election in which both candidates are middle-aged white men seems positively behind the times, but Swing Vote has inspired stretches in which it shows an unexpected hipness to the machinations of the modern political machine. No sooner have the candidates touched down in Texico than their victory-hungry campaign managers (Stanley Tucci for the red team and Nathan Lane for the blue) have organized gala dinners in Bud’s honor. Celebrity endorsers (including Willie Nelson and NASCAR legend Richard Petty) ride into town. When Bud tells an interviewer that he’s opposed to “insourcing” — his word for the replacement of American workers with cheaper Mexican ones — the formerly pro-immigration Greenleaf pulls a flip-flop that would blind-side even John Kerry. And when Bud seems to voice his support for gay marriage, Boone soon appears on TV dancing on a rainbow flag with a chorus line of screeching gay caricatures. Iraq barely merits a mention, but abortion does — in a movie being released by a division of the Walt Disney Company, no less! Politicians willing to say or do anything in order to win aren’t exactly news, but Stern and Richman are making (or, at least, trying to make) a bigger comment on our national obsession with competitions and end results, and how that obsession can lead perfectly decent people on both sides of the ballot box to betray themselves in the process.
Swing Vote swings wildly between spot-on satire and bold-faced parody without ever quite striking a comfortable balance, and it’s nothing if not overstuffed: I haven’t even mentioned the local TV reporter (Paula Patton) the movie shoehorns into the mix in a rather pedestrian attempt to weigh in on the ethics (or lack thereof) of the 24-hour news cycle. But Costner, playing the sort of good-hearted rube that has always been his strong suit, keeps things grounded. Watching him, you’re reminded that he’s one of the few movie stars of his generation who can convincingly play rural and working class, and who projects a kind of raffish, old-fashioned masculinity that has been all but metrosexualized from the cinema. In one scene, when Bud confronts the drug-addled wife (an excellent Mare Winningham) who abandoned him and their daughter, you’re also reminded that Costner can be a powerful dramatic actor when the occasion calls for it. Those three or four minutes of screen time bristle with the darker aspects of poverty and bottomed-out dreams that the very likable Swing Vote otherwise shies away from. So it’s scant surprise when, at a presidential debate organized for his benefit, just as Bud asks the question that may be foremost on many Americans’ minds right now — how is it that so many people in the supposedly richest country in the world can’t afford to live here — the syrupy music swells, the camera cranes up and the screen fades to black.
SWING VOTE | Directed by JOSHUA MICHAEL STERN | Written by JASON RICHMAN and STERN | Produced by JIM WILSON and KEVIN COSTNER | Released by Touchstone Pictures | Citywide