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5 reviews, 7 user ratings

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Swing Vote (2008)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"All He Wants To Do Is Fish"
4 stars

After spending months and months in the midst of a seemingly endless and incredibly bitter primary season and being on the cusp of what promises to be an equally rancorous general election, you would think that the last thing that most Americans would want to see is a gentle-hearted comedy-drama about the American political process, especially one in which the two presidential candidates are both essentially decent and idealistic chaps imaginable, little children possess the kind of wisdom and clarity that would put King Solomon to shame and the only real villains on display (not counting the jackals in the media and craven political consultants who care only about winning) are those people who refuse to exercise the constitutional right that so many have fought and died for in the past and that so many take for granted in the present. And yet, “Swing Vote” is not only exactly that kind of movie, it is actually a pretty good one to boot. For the first time in recent memory, someone has managed to make a film about contemporary politics that actually manages to present a message that is hopeful and constructive and does so in such a way that even the most cynical political junkies may find themselves unexpectedly succumbing to its low-key charms.

Kevin Costner stars as Bud Johnson, a trailer-trash doofus from the tiny town of Texico, New Mexico with too many bills, too few aspirations, a dead-end job in an egg-packing company and an idealistic young daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), who keeps trying to get him to pull himself together and become a better person. As the film opens, it is Election Day and as part of a class project, Molly is to write a report on her father going to vote and makes him promise to meet her after work at the local polling place in order to cast it. Alas, Bud gets fired from his job that day (there are reports that the plant is “insourcing”--bringing in Mexicans to do the jobs at a lower price instead of sending the work to Mexico) and spends the rest of the day drowning his sorrows at the local tavern. When he realizes that he is running later, he tries to make it over but the combination of the beer and a whack on the head by a “Vote Today” sign causes him to pass out before he can even get the key in the ignition. Furious and upset, Molly sneaks into the polling place and casts Bud’s vote herself. Through circumstances that I will leave for you to discover (except to note that the machinations seem reasonably plausible), the vote doesn’t register and when it turns out that the two sides are deadlocked in vote counts, it seems that when Bud gets to revote in ten days time, his single vote will literally decide the winner of the election.

Not unexpectedly, the eyes of the nation turn to Texico and before long, the two presidential candidates--incumbent Republican Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper--yes, Dennis Hopper)--arrive to personally court Bud with direct appeals and the influence of such celebrities as Richard Petty and Willie Nelson (both playing themselves) At the same time, the candidates’ chief advisors (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane) do everything they can to curry Bud’s favor by announcing vast policy changes meant to appeal directly to what they believe he is in favor of--easy and helpful enough when it comes to saving a stretch of river from the hands of developers but a little trickier when it comes to matters such as immigration and abortion. For a while, Bud revels in his new-found celebrity while Molly begins to despair about the unintended consequences of her actions., especially when she begins to read the thousands of letters sent to the disinterested Bud by the helpless and disenfranchised begging him to use his unexpected power and importance to help them with the issues that truly matter to them.

In the hands of some people, the notion of the power to decide who becomes the leader of the free world being unexpectedly bestowed upon a drunken dumbass with no clue as to the issues facing the country or even the names of the two people competing for the job could have been the basis for a dark and caustic satire about the unintended perils of democracy and how candidates are perfectly willing to sacrifice any and all of their once-cherished beliefs in an effort to secure victory at all costs. As intriguing as that may sound, that is not the movie that “Swing Vote” is. Oh sure, there are moments when the movie flirts with that kind of dark satire (such as the political commercials in which the Republican promises an administration that will be pro-gay and pro-environment while the Democrat comes out against immigration and abortion) but for the most part, both the humor and the politics of the film are much gentler and less partisan that you might expect--many people will no doubt compare it to the works of Frank Capra and for once, such comparisons are actually justified/. Instead of simply taking cheap shots at the contemporary electoral process, it wants to remind us of just how awesomely important it really is and that those who choose to take themselves out of it in the belief that their vote means nothing are just as responsible for the sad state of America’s political scene as anyone else. That co-writers Jason Richman & Joshua Michael Stern (the latter also directed) have even attempted to do something like that in this day and age is something to be impressed with and the fact that they have pulled it off without every quite gumming things up with a lot of sickly sentiment, something that even Capra himself was unable to avoid from time to time, is something to celebrate.

However, the real secret to the success of “Swing Vote” is the central performance from Kevin Costner as Bud. Look, we all know that Costner has made more than his fair share of questionable projects over the years (including pretty much anything that has required him to sport an accent or portray a messianic hero in a post-apocalyptic world0 but when he finds a role that falls into one of his two comfort zones--either the charmingly cynical bad boy of “Bull Durham,” “Tin Cup” or even the vastly underrated “Mr. Brooks” or the sole decent man in an increasingly corrupt world that he essayed in “Field of Dreams,” “JFK” or the vastly underrated “Open Range”--he can connect with the material with the kind of effortless ease that instantly reminds you why he became one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Although the role of Bud Johnson would seem to be an easy enough part to play, it is actually a lot trickier to pull off than it seems because it requires a high-wire act from an actor trying to balance the character’s jerkiness with his gradually emerging sense of decency--one false move and he runs the risk of coming across as either an unrepentantly selfish jackass or a sanctimonious snore--and Costner pulls it off beautifully. During the early scenes, he is effective as the self-involved stumblebum who keeps screwing things up for himself and his daughter and who is too distracted by the sideshow that his life has become to fully recognize the importance of his position. Later on, when he shifts gears and becomes a more responsible person, he manages to make the switch seem like something other than a screenplay contrivance. Take the film’s climax, a big speech in which he apologizes to the world for his selfish behavior and stresses the importance of democracy just before a presidential debate being staged just for him. Yes, it is hokey as all get out and it seems more than a bit unlikely that this doofus could suddenly become so eloquent but Costner pulls it off in such a way that it seems not only possible but plausible and I cannot think of another major actor working today who could have knocked such a scene out of the park in the way that he does.

“Swing Vote” runs on a little too long and it introduces more subplots than it has time to deal with--I could have easily lived without the stuff involving Molly’s long-lost mother and the saga of an ambitious local news reporter (Paula Patton) torn between ruthlessly exploiting Bud’s story for personal gain or doing the right thing (the latter’s dilemma is especially amusing when you consider that she is an employee of Fox News). Nevertheless, the film is one of those low-key surprises that is always welcome at the end of a season filled with one over-the-top blockbuster after another--a film that is more interested in charming viewers than in bludgeoning them into submission. It is smart, sweet, funny and sincere and most impressively of all, it manages to restore (at least temporarily) one’s faith in both the democratic process and Kevin Costner’s career.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17270&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/01/08 00:00:00
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User Comments

1/19/09 gc not that funny but does show how pathetic politicians can become just to win 3 stars
10/18/08 Nick Somoski Such an underrated movie! I loved it - I loved Kelsey Grammar in it! 4 stars
8/13/08 jessica worst movie ever! kevin costner is hot though. psych! 1 stars
8/10/08 George Barksdale Kevin could have done better 1 stars
8/05/08 Eloise Carlson Pretty good, andfunny at times. Kevin Costner was great. 3 stars
8/03/08 C Williams Avoid, please! I found myself counting theater ceiling tiles an hr into the film-HORRIFIC. 1 stars
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  01-Aug-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 13-Jan-2009


  DVD: 13-Jan-2009

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