A film review by Craig J. Koban

SWING VOTE jjj
½   

2008, PG-13, 119 mins.

Bud Johnson: Kevin Costner / Molly: Madeline Carroll / President Boone: Kelsey Grammer / Donald Greenleaf: Dennis Hopper / Martin Fox: Stanley Tucci / Art Crumb: Nathan Lane / Sweeney: George Lopez / Larissa Johnson: Mare Winningham

Directed by Joshua Michael Stern / Written by Jason Richman and Stern.

I am a real sucker for sweet tasting, sugar-coated Frank Capra-corn, and the new political comedy SWING VOTE is agreeably digestible through and through.  

The film concerns a Presidential election that – as highly improbably as it seems – is deadlocked at an electoral tie and can inevitably be resolved with one man (yes…one man) casting his ballot.  Alongside its silly and whimsical façade is its nourishing Capraesque vibe, which is why I found the film to be so refreshingly entertaining.  In our inordinately nihilistic and apathetic times it’s nice to see a film that has an amiable heart alongside having a sly and sardonic comic edge.  At it’s core, SWING VOTE is about a deeply flawed and troubled - but good natured - person that finds a way to change himself and those around him.  What’s even better is the fact that the film never browbeats its wholesome vitality over audiences' heads to the point of exhaustion.  

Even more crucial is the fact that SWING VOTE is neither a stinging and ostentatious indictment of the two major political parties, nor does it take great pains to criticize the social malaise that many listless voters experience come Election Day every four years.  Hell, the film never really places any real importance on which person will win its election.  The point of SWING VOTE is that it’s a light, calmly satiric, frequently funny and moving, and genial morality parable about an unlikable slob who becomes a somebody when he faces the establishment and wins a moral victory by proving to himself and to others that he is a somebody. 

Frank Capra would definitely approve. 

The casting here is absolutely crucial, and Kevin Costner’s low key charisma and affable wit and charm are on display here is mass quantities.  Yes, he is not an actor of significant range, per se.  I have always found him to be in the vein of a modern day Gary Cooper, possessing an understated stoicism, an off kilter slyness, a modest cynical edge, and, most importantly, a plausible earnestness.  That’s perhaps why I found him hopelessly miscast as a serial killer in last year’s MR. BROOKS, where I rightfully commented that he seemed about as out of place portraying a homicidal maniac as Cooper would have been playing a Nazi.  Thankfully, Costner's true, confident form is playing the parts that defined his career in films like BULL DURHAM, TIN CUP, and recently THE UPSIDE OF ANGER - the likeable rogue.  Very few actors can maintain a grove in these types of parts, but Costner always spotlessly encompasses them.  He’s not playing a character that’s genuinely a “good guy” in SWING VOTE, but not many can convincing play an unsentimental part with such simplicity and sincerity: Costner’s work here completely anchors the film. 

He plays Bud Johnson, an unemployed egg inspector from Texico, New Mexico.  He’s a nobody from a nowhere town.  Bud is such a hung-over-every-day loser that he is less a mature authority figure to his young 12-year-old daughter than he is a hindrance.  His days at his monotonous job are followed by nights of binge drinking and passing out in bed.  He has no ambition, no future, and no sense of personal responsibility.  His family life is also a mess: His wife dumped him to peruse a singing career, which was hindered by a drug addiction, and he now lives in a decrepit trailer park with his daughter, whom he has custody over…just barely.  He is one felony away…literally…from losing her. 

His daughter, Molly (played by 2008’s best new child actor find, newcomer Madeline Carroll) is everything her dad is not.  She’s incredibly smart, well spoken, politically savvy, and fiercely proud of being an American.  She is also, on a negative level, a psuedo-babysitter for her dumbass, inebriated father, and she is close to leaving him once and for all.  She is tired of Bud embarrassing and letting her down at every corner and is growing fatigued by being a tired social worker for him day and night.  She hopes that he will at least bolster up enough prideful civic duty within himself to meet her at the polling stations so he cast cast his ballot to choose the next US president.  Bud, alas, lets her down when he is fired from his job for intoxication and, to drown his sorrows, gets hammered at the local bar and completely forgets about meeting his daughter to vote. 

It’s here where the film introduces its shaky premise that later securely grounds the rest of the proceedings.  Being staunchly civic minded – and not wanting her dad’s right to vote be squandered – Molly sneaks past the lackluster polling station security, takes a ballot, and proceeds to caste Bud’s vote for him.  However, a technical glitch spoils the ballot.  This, in Molly’s mind, is not that much of a big deal as getting caught attempting to vote for her dad.  Clearly, one single vote in a country of hundreds of millions would not matter…right?  

Wrong.  

Because this is a fairy tale morality play, the story then shows how the Presidential election between the Commander In Chief, Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer, in a well oiled performance) and the Democratic challenger, Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper, equally refined) is so minutely narrow that the race will be decided by five New Mexican electoral votes, meaning that one vote will call the election…Bud’s botched vote.  

Initially, Bud’s identity as the person that will be responsible for choosing the next President is a secret, and both candidates have political muscle on their campaign teams that will do anything to discover his identity.  On Greenleaf’s side is Art Crumb (Nathan Lane) and on the Prez’s side is Martin Fox (Stanley Tucci), and both are willing to go to any length to get Bud on their side.  When Bud’s is revealed to the world as the soul voter to decide the fate of the election to a local reporter (the luminous Paula Patton), he becomes embroiled in media frenzy and becomes an overnight sensation.  More critically, he becomes a puppet of the manipulative efforts of the Greenleaf and Boone campaign juggernaut, which desperately will flip-flop on any issue to get Bud’s approval. 

I liked how the satire in SWING VOTE does not agonize us by sermonizing, nor is it cheaply conniving.  For a political film, SWING VOTE neither chastises the Democrats and Republicans nor does it hold them up for hero worship.  What’s paramount to the film is chronically the theme of a intolerably apolitical man trying to come to grips with his instant celebrity status and how, in turn, he is forced to deal with his sense of low self worth and significance to rise to the occasion to make an incredibly significant choice that has world wide ramifications.  The story is essentially an emotional odyssey for Bud who must go from total voter apathy to the point where he realizes the magnitude of the predicament he’s in.  Even more important is Bud’s displaying to Molly that he is not the bum she thinks he always appears to be – choosing the next most powerful man in the free world is not as pressing as ensuring that he does not disappoint his daughter one more time.  

The performances are key here, especially with allowing the film to strongly resonant beyond its fanciful and unbelievable premise.  Costner, as stated, is so relaxed and assured playing his below-average-Joe anti-hero at just the right level.  He is more than convincing playing an American everyman. The whole arc of his character is uplifting for how he manages to overcome his slobby and disheveled appearance by morphing into a sober and – as luck would have it – fairly articulated man when it comes to dealing with the two candidates.  

What’s really interesting is how Bud’s forthrightness and genuine, blue-collar frankness acts as a catalyst for the two politicians to rethink their strategies.  I appreciated how both Grammar’s and Hopper’s characters do not degenerate into witless political caricatures:  Yes, they do a lot of shameful manipulation of Bud to curb his favor at first, but they too have made emotional changes for the better largely because of their growing respect for Bud’s dilemma.  Of course, we get a big speech near the end of the film that echoes MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, which shows a man once demonized as witless white trash by the press who suddenly is able to command dignity and respect for how he talks about large issues with a common vernacular.  This moment is handled with the right balance of poise and tact, which is also assisted by Costner’s not playing the scene up for phony schmaltziness.  

SWING VOTE also benefits from a variety of strong supporting performances.  Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane have field days playing sharp and fiendishly clever campaign managers that have a deeply emotional stake for seeing their respective candidates to the White House.  Paula Patton - who shares one of those radiating smiles that ignites the screen like that of a Jennifer Garner or a Rachel McAdams -  has a nice turn as the reporter facing a crisis of conscience.  But the real standout here is Madeline Carroll, who has such a natural and easy-going screen presence that maintains a real symbiotic chemistry with Costner at every turn.  Molly is the emotional center of the film’s story that involves Bud’s spiritual reawakening.  A stilted and wooden child actor would have ruined the effect, but Carroll is eloquent, affable, sharp witted, and has good instincts, traits that more mature actors often fail to grasp. 

SWING VOTE is not perfect; it’s running time is too long for its own good, not to mention that a key sub plot involving a moral choice made by Patton’s conflicted reporter seems a bit cockamamie for its own good.  Yet, the resulting film is such a wonderfully effective and endearingly noble-minded Capra-fable that it sure is hard not to be taken in by its modest charm and simple-minded enthusiasm.  “Feel Good” cinema often lacks restraint and delicacy, often to the point where the proceedings are so deplorably saccharine that you want to throw things at the screen in disgust (ahem, PATCH ADAMS).  SWING VOTE anchors down this tricky genre by establishing a proper tempo and cadence without feeling like it’s engaging in thematic overkill.   And at its epicenter is Kevin Costner, an actor that seldom gets the credit he deserves.  He certainly is not a performer of variety, but he is a wholesomely iconic, sardonically cagey, and an amiably charismatic presence in the movies.  And as shown in SWING VOTE…a strong one at that.

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