Thursday, July 31, 2008

Swing Vote: Count on Kevin

Swing Vote (2008) • View trailer for Swing Vote
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for quite a bit of (good-natured) profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.31.08
Buy DVD: Swing Vote • Buy Blu-Ray: Swing Vote [Blu-ray]

Although the movie industry occasionally dabbles in politics, the results usually emerge as a comedy or a thriller: either way, nothing to be taken seriously.

And when filmmakers try to be serious, the results usually fall far short of expectations. Last year's Lions for Lambs became the most recent flop to "prove" an ancient Hollywood truism: Politics is the kiss of death to a film, as far as box office results are concerned.
Career goof-off Bud Johnson (Kevin Coster) finally gets a sense of his pivotal
place in history after confronting the sacks of mail from citizens across the
entire United States: letters that his far more sensitive daughter, Molly
(Madeline Carroll) has been answering in his name, so that all these people
don't think that her father is letting them down.

Indeed, one could cite the truly great American political films on the fingers of one hand: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, All the King's Men (the 1949 version), The Candidate and Wag the Dog come to mind, with Thirteen Days and Primary Colors perhaps ranking as recent near-misses.

Director/co-writer Joshua Michael Stern and fellow scribe Jason Richman deserve considerable credit, then, for their sharply observed screenplay in Swing Vote, a deceptively quiet little comedy-drama that takes an increasingly perceptive poke at the modern American political machine. And if the behavior of our two political parties, as this story progresses, doesn't really seem that bizarre ... well, then, more's the pity.

Swing Vote also demonstrates, yet again, the amazing resilience of star Kevin Costner. This guy's career has had more peaks and valleys than most, but every time he threatens to become known only for ill-advised projects — Dragonfly and Rumor Has It come to mind, and even last year's cleverly conceived Mr. Brooks was a financial disappointment — he rebounds with another one of his well-timed and perfectly cast Americana roles: think Bull Durham, Tin Cup, Open Range and now Swing Vote.

Costner slides comfortably into his part here as Bud Johnson, an apathetic, smart-mouthed but usually amiable loser who drinks too much and can't be bothered to do more than just slide by. He and his precocious 12-year-old daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll, a thorough delight), live in a dilapidated mobile home, where he crashes each night after too many beers, following another demoralizing factory shift where he packages eggs on an assembly line.

Molly is Bud's "one good thing," but he takes unconscionable advantage of the girl, who too often finds herself being the parent in their family dynamic: She makes all the meals, cleans things up and hauls him out of bed each morning, so he can drive her to school ... although, as we quickly learn, she's capable of driving herself, having gotten considerable practice every time Bud goes on a bender.

Bud and Molly live in flyspeck Texico, N.M., a community so tiny that it isn't even on the map. As a result, local interest in the impending presidential election is somewhat lax, with pollworkers likely to fall asleep from sheer boredom.

But Molly takes civic duty quite seriously. A well- received school essay comes to the attention of local TV reporter Kate Madison (Paula Patton), who puts the girl on the evening news; this plays right into the most recent promise Molly has extracted from her father, who has agreed to let her write about his voting experience that same evening.

But Bud forgets, of course, and a shattered Molly once again is left disappointed. But this time she acts impulsively: She's inches from committing election fraud — filling out a ballot in her father's name — when she's saved by a well-timed power hiccup that shuts down the electronic ballot machines and invalidates her potentially rash act. Or so she believes.


With a fictitious echo of the 2000 real-world presidential election, which came down to the few hundred ballots that determined Florida's 25 electoral votes, this movie's well-fought battle — between Republican incumbent President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) — goes right down to the wire. New Mexico's five electoral votes will determine the winner, but they're still in play because the state is in a similar dead heat.

When all the ballots have been tabulated, everything falls on sleepy little Texico, where the results are similarly tied ... and, due to an "irregularity," one vote is known to have been lost during the aforementioned electronic hiccup. That individual need only re-cast his ballot, within 10 days, to break the tie.

That person is Bud ... much to his surprise.

Suddenly, the entire world descends on Texico, the media desperate to know how Bud will vote. To make matters worse, both candidates also show up, assisted by their respective campaign managers — Stanley Tucci as Martin Fox, President Boone's smug and seasoned handler, and Nathan Lane as Greenleaf's more desperate associate, Art Crumb, who has lost seven elections — and proceed to woo Bud like competing contestants in a bad reality TV show.

Again — sad to say — it doesn't seem all that unlikely.

Stern plays a breathtaking and increasingly dangerous game with this story, as it continues to play out, because Bud refuses to recognize the seriousness of his position; he's having too much fun exploiting his 15 minutes of fame. Costner's mostly lovable misfit loses more and more of his charm, as the script mercilessly hammers this guy's cluelessness and countless character flaws.

We keep waiting for him to wake up, to have the epiphany demanded by this storyline ... but it simply doesn't happen.

Meanwhile, the increasingly desperate Boone and Greenleaf are encouraged to abandon more and more of their traditional party platforms, in venal and blindingly obvious efforts to court this target audience of one.

Blindingly obvious to everybody except Bud, that is. Nor will he listen when the much more perceptive Molly, fully aware of the cynical behavior all around them, begs him to be more circumspect.

Aside from the flawless casting in all supporting roles — Grammer and Tucci are just as perfect, as the Republican team, as Hopper and Lane are as the underdog challengers — the film gets additional juice from the frequent use of familiar real-world political commentators: everybody from Tucker Carlson and James Carville to Arianna Huffington, Larry King and Bill Maher.

Several of these cameo players are equally merciless, in their analysis of both Bud and the system that has been reduced to courting him like some giddy high school girl.

I have to admire Stern, who manages to eat his cake and have it, too. He also deserves credit for being reasonably even-handed; his film feels less partisan than idealistic, with both Republicans and Democrats given opportunities for ill-advised and gracious behavior.

Although his film milks the manipulative underbelly of American politics for increasingly dark humor — prompting our own increasingly nervous laughter — Stern never loses sight of his central premise: that whatever its other flaws, our country remains a precious thing because of the fact that every vote does count.

Rather than worry that a doofus such as Bud Johnson might hold America's fate in his hands, we're instead encouraged to believe that ordinary citizens — as they so often do when serving on a jury — will rise to the occasion and do their country proud.

Even if Bud might be too consumed by self-pity to make anybody proud.

The father/daughter dynamic between Costner and Carroll is a delight, evoking strong memories of Ryan and Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon. Bud never wins his arguments with Molly; he's always reduced to closing any discussion with a petulant "Fine!" that is echoed by her own satisfied "Fine!" It's a cute running gag, and repeated just often enough for maximum impact.

The film runs a bit long, and the script isn't perfect. I could have lived without a quickie subplot involving Molly's deadbeat mother (Mare Winningham, playing a real loser); this sidebar issue is completely superfluous. Additionally, Costner's climactic speech smacks too much of Hollywood cotton candy, when for the most point Stern avoids such obvious clichés.

I was reminded of Jimmy Stewart's similarly melodramatic soliloquy at the emotional high point of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It's the only time Stern tries for blatant "significance," and Costner can't quite pull it off.

The movie's final scene, on the other hand, is perfect, although it may some viewers.

Swing Vote covers serious territory, but does so in a manner as easygoing as its protagonist. Whatever its immediate box office fate, I suspect it'll enjoy a long life as an only slightly exaggerated look at early 21st century American politics, while putting a mocking and cautionary face on those still controversial events in four Florida counties, back in 2000.

Pretty heady stuff, for a supposedly lightweight, late-summer release.

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