Directed by Joshua Michael Stern. Starring Kevin Costner, Madeline Carroll, Paula Patton, Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci, George Lopez, Judge Reinhold, Mare Winningham. (2008, PG-13, 120 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 1, 2008
Costner’s new comedy is fueled by the absurdity of the balloting debacle of the 2004 presidential election, as well as the proximity of the 2008 vote. That may make Swing Vote timely, but that doesn’t make the film good. Swing Vote’s premise takes absurdity to a whole new dimension, while the film’s humor is cynical and its plot development stagnant – until, of course, a third-act redemption comes along to salvage the ideals of democracy (although the overall cynicism makes even this tonal turnabout seem artificial). The story requires a serious suspension of disbelief: No matter how ridiculous things get with electronic voting-machine mishaps, hanging chads, and court interventions, Swing Vote’s scenario posits an election process that ignores the constitutional safeguards that are already in place in the eventuality of a tie vote. Costner plays Bud Johnson, an affable drunk who is kept afloat mostly by the attentive ministrations of his young but precocious daughter Molly (Carroll). When Bud passes out drunk and doting Molly attempts to cast his vote in his place, an electronic voting-machine glitch records only that Bud cast his ballot, but not for whom he voted. A national dead heat prompts both candidates (Grammer as the Republican and Hopper as the Democrat and Tucci and Lane, respectively, as each candidate’s chief campaign operative) to travel to Bud’s double-wide trailer in Texico, N.M., to bring their campaigns to the only voter who now matters. It’s a spectacle indeed, as the Republican starts touting ecological preservation and the Democrat comes out in favor of bans against abortion and immigration. Bud is given 10 days to recast his vote while a media phalanx parks outside his trailer, the candidates personally court him, and TV news personalities (including cameos from, among others, Aaron Brown, Campbell Brown, Tucker Carlson, James Carville, Mary Hart, Arianna Huffington, Larry King, Bill Maher, and Chris Matthews) weigh in on the unprecedented situation. Costner easily plays the ne'er-do-well Bud, but the character and the film never develop any forward momentum: All the characters continue to hit the same notes over and over. Plus, some side plots – most notably, Winningham's single but immensely disturbing scene – are irrelevant tangents to the story. However, the most regrettable aspect of the story is screenwriters Stern and Jason Richman's failure to acknowledge the debt they owe to Garson Kanin's 1939 film, The Great Man Votes, one of John Barrymore's last performances, in which he plays an alcoholic widower with two kids, who is personally courted by mayoral candidates when it turns out that he is the only registered voter in an important precinct. Swing Vote may muster a few easy laughs, but the film is no contender.