Satire works better than sentiment in new film
By Matt Brunson
DIRECTED BY Joshua Michael Stern
STARS Kevin Costner, Madeline Carroll
There's a terrific segment in the middle of Swing Vote in which the two men running for U.S. president, the Republican incumbent Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and the Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), are persuaded by their campaign managers (played by Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane, respectively) to do anything to win the favor of Texico, N.M., resident Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner), whose single vote will decide the outcome of this election. So when Bud lets it be known that he doesn't care what people do in the privacy of their own homes, even homosexuals, the right-wing Boone is forced to appear in an ad in which, surrounded by members of the gay community, he cheerfully embraces diversity. And when a comment by Bud is misunderstood to mean that he harbors ill will toward Mexican laborers, the left-wing Greenleaf reluctantly films a TV spot in which he rails against illegal immigrants, even as real immigrants hired as extras run across the set behind him.
These bits (as well as a couple of others) are funny, biting and provocative, and they demonstrate that Swing Vote had an opportunity to emerge as a scathing political satire (e.g. Warren Beatty's excellent Bulworth) rather than a timid political comedy (e.g. Robin Williams' execrable Man of the Year).
Sadly, Swing Vote largely fails to capitalize on its juicy sales pitch. After the debacle of the 2000 election that produced a presidency which will live in infamy, it's easier to accept great chunks of this film's premise, which focuses on how one vote in one county can place the state in the Win column for either candidate. And when it turns out that the voter is an unemployed drunk who's so unreliable that his precocious young daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) has to take care of him, it's anybody's election, especially after Bud declares that he has an "open mind" when it comes to recasting his vote (actually, it was Molly who secretly cast the vote, but lets not go into intricate plot details right now, OK?). That comment leads to the candidates and the media all descending like vultures onto the sleepy town of Texico, with the politicos attempting to bribe Bud (tours through Air Force One, personal celebrity appeals by Willie Nelson and Richard Petty) and the press there to pry into all aspects of his life.
The central thrust of the movie isn't the election as much as it's the familial bonding between Bud and his daughter. That's all good and sweet -- and Costner delivers a fine performance as a man whose love for his child eventually rejuvenates him -- but we see that type of sentimental film just about on a monthly basis. We're here for the hard truths about American politics -- or at least to watch the whole process receive a sharp kick in the pants -- but this movie shies away from them every chance it gets. Writer-director Joshua Michael Stern and co-scripter Jason Richman were doubtless hoping to emulate such feel-good Frank Capra classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but Swing Vote isn't inspirational as much as it's simply afraid to take a stand on anything. And given this narrative trajectory, the picture ends just as we suspect it would, not with a bang but with a wimp-out.