Swing Vote (2008)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/01/08 00:00:00

"Vote No on empty satire."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

There’s a weird, welcome shift late in the election fantasy “Swing Vote.” A quiet, reflective tone suddenly washes over the sitcom set-ups and generic commentary; two presidential candidates slowly realize they’ve sold out their beliefs, and the Kevin Costner delivers a weighty monologue on Americans’ desire to believe in something more than what’s viewed as an empty-headed Washington rut.

Where was this movie ninety minutes ago? Everything before the finale is clumsy and flat, a satire with nothing to add but lazy comedy, cheap melodrama, and inoffensive political jokes, the sort of broadly sketched, bite-less parody that sticks to safe punchlines and goes out of its way to insult no one. You know, like a JibJab cartoon.

Then, mysteriously, “Swing Vote” turns into a pretty darn good movie, earnestly discussing and causes of voter apathy and a deep-rooted desire to erase it. We don’t even mind that Costner’s big speech is grossly manipulative (right down to the music swells and the dramatic lighting). The guy has good things to say about the hope Americans cling to, a hope that struggles to be reinvigorated every election year, a hope that dwindles every time we see candidates stooping to dirty campaigning and empty promises.

But such hope demands an effort on our part, too, the film reminds us. We can’t just sit around, bitching about the economy whenever our bank account runs low, laughing along at whatever generalities the late night talk show hosts throw at us. If we are to expect the high quality of government, we have to study, keep up, get involved.

And darn it if the movie doesn’t deliver, with Costner’s everyman slacker finally learning the importance of the issues, and with the candidates finally realizing they need to be the upright leaders a trusting public deserves. The last ten minutes of “Swing Vote” are naïve, to be sure, but they’re also quite lovely.

It’s not enough to save the movie. Costner stars as Bud Johnson, a down-on-his-luck single dad barely making ends meet in his small New Mexico town, just fired from his job at the local factory, eager to drown his problems at the neighborhood bar. His precocious tweener daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), is concerned about his laziness - she even registered him to vote, which he bemoans. (Now he’ll get jury duty, he sourly grumbles.) When he fails to show up at the polls, Molly sneaks in and votes for him.

For reasons too convoluted to explain here, Bud’s vote was the only one not counted in the entire state, a state that is otherwise at a complete tie, a state whose electoral votes will determine the outcome of the presidential election. You see what I mean about suspension of disbelief. We’re asked to buy into a close election where nobody asks for a recount, although the script is kind enough to mention, if only in passing, the vague tie-breaking rules mentioned in the Constitution.

It doesn’t matter, really. For just as the wondrous comedy “Dave” bends reality to give us a common man in the Oval Office, “Swing Vote” bends it further to exaggerate just how far politicians will go to win. After all, if they lie and connive and flip flop and sling mud to win over mass blocks of voters, what will they do to entice the final, decision-making vote? And so we’re given Republican Kelsey Grammer (the incumbent) and Democrat Dennis Hopper (the challenger), who fly to Podunk to woo Bud with NASCAR rides and Willie Nelson endorsements and poker games on Air Force One and complete policy shifts, all at the behest of their slimy campaign advisers (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane, respectively). Oh, those kooky Washington insiders.

Even if we go ahead and forgive every ridiculous notion the plot throws our way in an attempt to set up its every-vote-counts metaphor, we can’t overlook how shoddy the script ultimately is - not because of its flights of political fancy, but because of the complete lack of focus. The comedy swerves from sincere to sitcommy to wildly over-the-top and back again. Every time a quiet moment is followed by a ridiculous parody of a campaign ad, we wonder if we’re still watching the same movie. It’s as if the “South Park” gang snuck in late one night and added two or three scenes to a Tom Shadyac/Jim Carrey script.

This unevenness extends to the story itself. Consider one scene, late in the film, in which Molly runs away to find her mother, who had left years ago. What follows is a short aside for the plot that adds little to the characters and nothing to the rest of the picture. On its own, it’s a decent moment (with a nice performance by Mare Winningham), but it seems dropped in almost at random. Was this the remnant of a larger subplot removed from the script? Did screenwriters Joshua Michael Stern (who also directed) and Jason Richman think they were adding emotional depth to the proceedings? Was this a cheap tearjerking ploy?

Other subplots clutter the running time. In one, an ambitious local journalist (Paula Patton) is tempted by her boss (George Lopez) into using ugly tactics to get the story. There’s supposed to be something here about how the media walks all over its subjects, but it’s so underdeveloped that it never works as a point. (She also appears, albeit in a slightly undercooked manner, as a love interest for Bud, because that’s how much the script loses track of itself.)

Meanwhile, the locals (among them a mustachioed Judge Reinhold) grow weary of Bud’s celebrity; they’re meant to symbolize a lower class populace ignored by Washington and the media alike, yet the screenplay is too vague on the topic - its lone message here is “politicians should help poor people!”, end of discussion - that it’s not so much an issue as a focus-grouped plot point. Yeah, make Kevin Costner tell those fatcats to help us! How can they help us? I dunno. But make Kevin Costner say it! That’ll make us feel good!

The vagueness of issues is less welcome than it first seems. While the idea of not having to deal with a direct parody of the Obama/McCain election while it’s unfolding sounds a bit refreshing, we’re not left with much in its place. The writers are either too lazy, too afraid, or too uninformed to inject actual issues into their film. Bud receives mountains of mail on various subjects (which Molly sorts as “health care,” “education,” “equal rights,” and so on) yet the movie snubs the details. “Economy,” as an issue, here boils down to “a couple people can’t find jobs.” More controversial topics, like abortion and gay marriage, are shuffled aside to be used as punchlines, Bud’s ignorance excusing any further discussion.

The candidates themselves are bland, predictable stereotypes - the obsessed-with-war, macho Republican; the elitist, wishy-washy Democrat. We never hear a single platform regarding the actual campaigns. This is a film that finds out what the agreed-upon beliefs and flaws of each political side are, then shrinks at any notion of going beyond that, lest an audience become offended (or, worse, challenged) in any way.

This decision leaves the movie with nothing more to do than become a sitcom. We’re asked to giggle at Bud’s knuckleheaded innocence and tsk-tsk the candidates’ inflated ambitions. Only at the end does the movie wise up, shake off its clutter, sidestep its cheap laughs, and figure out what it really wants to say about America. But by then, it’s too late.

A final note. In a move that can only be described as unsettling, Stern loads his film with cameos from real-life newscasters. And not just expected shills like Larry King, but big names, too: Aaron Brown, Chris Matthews, Arianna Huffington, Tucker Carlson, James Carville, Bill Maher, and Tony Blankley are among the faces you’ll see here, quipping on the election. It’s supposed to lend this otherwise implausible premise a pinch of reality (you know, the Jay Leno monologue cameo). Instead, it makes things creepy. Shouldn’t prominent newscasters be above Hollywood playtime?

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