Movie Review – Swing Vote (2008)
Since there is a particularly momentous presidential inauguration going on south of the border in a little country called the USA what better way to celebrate than with a review of one of cinema’s toughest genres to tackle – the political satire motion picture. Hollywood is littered with many failed politically based movies that have found it hard to either be critically lauded or to excite audiences to box office success. There are many theories as to this issue but most would give great weight to the very fact that audiences just aren’t engaged enough to care about the subject matter as they can see the real thing on their local prime time news program. Actually, this general apathy towards politics lies at the very heart of Kevin Costner’s new flick, Swing Vote.
As setups go, Swing Vote is wholly unbelievable taking the very notion of every vote counts to its obvious conclusion. Influenced by the historic 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore that came down to less than 500 votes in a single county in Florida, Swing Vote decides to play that scenario right down to a single ballot that would decide the result.
Costner plays single parent Ernest “Bud” Johnson, a disheveled drunkard who lazily goes through the motions pretending to work in an egg packaging plant now inundated with Latinos. Bud has a requisite precocious daughter named Molly, played by newcomer Madeline Carrol, who seems to be the exact opposite in personality. She’s bright, driven and extremely intelligent so much so that she plays the traditional motherly role in doing laundry, cooking and generally taking care of Bud all the while having a stout moral core that compels her to want to grow up to be chairman of the fed.
As the movie opens it’s election day and civic minded Molly implores Bud to go and vote since it is his duty. Bud initially does not care a hoot but after much cajoling promises to meet his daughter at the polling station later that night. However, he manages to get fired from his job and in a state of depression goes and gets drunk ending up passed out in his truck leaving Molly to cast his ballot in his stead. Unfortunately, the power dips as she’s casting the vote in the electronic booth and the ballot is ruined.
Of course, we wouldn’t have much of a movie if that’s all that occurred. Instead, after all the votes are counted both candidates, Republican incumbent President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and his rival Democrat Donald Evergreen (Dennis Hopper) do not have more than 270 electoral votes to win and the swing state of New Mexico cannot be called because one county that will decide the election is in a tie vote. It turns out that Molly’s ballot is the one that will decide the election, a fact that can’t be known as she is not of voting age so she informs her dad that it is up to him to crown the next President of the United States.
This sets up a rather obvious second act where journalists and political lobbyists from around the world descend like a swarm of ants upon the small town of Texico, New Mexico to cover the incredulous story of Bud Johnson and attempt to discern what makes him tick and that how the fate of the world’s biggest superpower rests on the shoulders of this particular whino. Both President Boone and his Democrat opponent show up as well as their own political advisors who all easily understand what is at stake prompting them to do anything in their power to sway him to their side.
At its core Swing Vote is a movie with an unfortunate dual personality as the narrative bobs and weaves back and forth between political hijinks and familial melodrama. Director and screenwriter Joshua Michael Stern tries to combine both storylines with varying results that dilutes the overall product that never truly delves into either subject with much aplomb. It is also as if Stern is hedging his bet by presenting a political drama buffeted with enough soap opera stylings to attract those not drawn to its political message.
This vacillation between storylines gives the film a stuttering pace as it constantly changes focus between political machinations and scenes where Bud and Molly attempt to bond, usually with disastrous results. As Bud’s profile rises Molly’s brooding skyrockets until she decides to try her luck with her long lost mother who basically is an even worse parent than Bud. This melodrama might work on TV soaps but it’s nothing more than a distraction here.
This leaves the central core message of voter complacency and lack of responsibility to waffle in the wind for most of the film’s duration. Instead of tackling the truly nasty side of politics we get a mostly sugar-coated view of the world that truly belongs in fairy tales. True, the film does get in a few zingers and there are many hilarious moments as both Republicans and Democrats literally bend over backwards and change policy to suit Bud’s needs but its all done in a tongue and cheek style that never calls home the true enormity of the situation at hand.
It is amusing to watch the fake commercials each side does in a blatant attempt at pandering such as Republican President Boone openly calling for gay rights or Democrat Greenleaf going pro-choice but the film is merely poking gentle fun instead of skewering the political apparatus.
Director Stern decides to use a twelve gauge shotgun approach and aims at everyone involved in the process not only the politicians. Therefore, journalists and even Hollywood and sports figures don’t go unscathed but the wounds are merely skin deep.
Perhaps the biggest failing though is that everyone is redeemed in wholly unbelievable ways. Politicians who spend the whole running time attempting to win Bud’s vote pull back from the brink and realize they are walking down the wrong path. Journalists who will do anything for even a whiff of a scoop suddenly realize the error of their ways and back off. Even Bud has his epiphany moment when it finally dawns on him that his daughter is right and that his antics have become a national embarrassment. At issue though is that all these moments of truth are rammed into a truncated third act that steamrolls its way to a rather anticlimactic finale featuring an enlightened Bud giving an emotionally syrupy speech in the middle of a sports field.
It is wholly unbelievable to accept that such a man like Bud manages to undergo political cram school in the period of one night and come out of it with the ability of eloquent speech giving. If it were this easy anyone can do it, which is definitely not the case.
That is not to say Kevin Costner or the rest of the cast does shoddy work. In fact, Costner gives one of his most enduring performances here as the down on his luck lazy-ass loser which contrasts greatly with his past Hollywood persona. He gives off a generally likable charisma and together with newcomer Madeline Carrol makes much of the film watchable. Carrol is a real find here although I was filled with the impression that I was watching yet another in a long line of Abigail Breslin / Dakota Fanning clones but that’s a good things as all three of these young actresses acquit themselves well. Still, filmmakers have got to stop utilizing young kids as a cheap prop in order to elicit tears as it is sometimes much too mechanical a plot device. It’s great to watch someone so young of years pull them off but it’s almost as if it has become a prerequisite for these young actresses to bawl their eyes out as it’s a cheap device filmmakers use to bring empathy to their plights.
The supporting cast also makes a good impression from Kelsey Grammer’s President and Dennis Hopper’s contender to their political aides played by Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane. However, this is politics lite on display here and most of these roles border on becoming political caricatures. Those expecting something like 1993’s “The War Room” documentary showing Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign better look elsewhere.
There are also a truck load of journalist and television personalities that have cameos such as Larry King, Mary Hart, Arianna Huffington and Bill Maher who add to the overall atmosphere. It’s just too bad that none of them are given much to do as their further involvement might have added much spice to the proceedings. Instead, they are basically relegated to the sidelines mostly seen in the background on television sets in bars and other assorted watering holes. Not to mention, Mary Hart is the one who gets the first interview exclusive with Bud? That’s a bit of a stretch and dumps the film into tabloid territory.
Thankfully, the filmmakers have made Bud a political neophyte independent with nary an inkling to his true beliefs. This makes him a blank slate and it aids the film in its Capra-esque fantasy world but unlike Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you never get the impression that Bud acknowledges he is being played like a pawn in a high stakes match and his conversion at the denouement to concerned citizen is more a function of the plot rather than honest character development.
Swing Vote tries to make a politically accessible movie and in that regard it succeeds albeit one that barely dives into the intended nastiness involved. Instead of devoting a large section of time to Kevin Costner singing with his real band, Modern West, it would have been more beneficial to focus on the intended message. The issues at hand that drive elections, even the current Obama versus McCain instance have not changed as there’s still a general malaise towards politicians in general. The goal of the movie to incite people to do their duty to vote and get involved in the process is noble but most of the movie is too far-fetched to make that message stick.
**1/2 out of ****
2008, USA, 120, PG-13, Touchstone Pictures
Directed by Joshua Michael Stern
Written by Jason Richman & Joshua Michael Stern
Produced by Kevin Costner, Jim Wilson
Executive producer: Terry Dougas, Ted Field, Robin Jonas, Paris Kasidokostas Latsis
Original Music by John Debney
Cinematography by Shane Hurlbut
Bud Johnson: Kevin Costner
Molly Johnson: Madeline Carroll
Kate Madison: Paula Patton
President Andrew Boone: Kelsey Grammer
Donald Greenleaf: Dennis Hopper
Art Crumb: Nathan Lane
Martin Fox: Stanley Tucci
John Sweeney: George Lopez
Walter: Judge Reinhold
© 2009 The Galactic Pillow