The Movie Review: 'Swing Vote'

by Christopher Orr | July 31, 2008

Swing Vote stars Kevin Costner as a drunken loser who, thanks to a voting glitch, gets singlehandedly to decide the presidential election. Based on that brief description, you can probably determine whether or not this is a movie you’d like to see, as it is neither appreciably better nor dramatically worse than its hokey, please-describe-me-as-“Capraesque” premise. Indeed, a few more specific data points--the movie is set in New Mexico; Costner’s character, “Bud,” has an upright, precocious daughter whom he’s always disappointing; the two presidential candidates Bud must choose between are exactly balanced, two decent men pushed around by unscrupulous campaign managers--and you may be able to assemble the movie in your head and save yourself the trip to the multiplex.

Directed by Joshua Michael Stern from a script he co-wrote with Jason Richman, Swing Vote opens with Bud being awakened from a deep, alcohol-enhanced slumber--it’s the first of several such scenes--by his twelve-year-old daughter Molly (newcomer Madeline Carroll). As he drives her blearily to school, she reminds him that it’s Election Day and she expects him to vote. He protests that he’s not registered; she tells him she registered him. “Screw this up,” she threatens, “and I’m leaving you.”

He does; she doesn’t. Fired from his job at an egg-crating plant, Bud goes on a bender and passes out before making it to the polls at the Posse Bingo Hall and Dance Palace. But for reasons I won’t reveal, election officials believe that Bud attempted to vote and his vote wasn’t counted. This oversight becomes somewhat more urgent when it is discovered that the electoral tally in the presidential race has all come down to New Mexico and the state itself is tied--all the way down to the last voter save one, Bud. (The usual array of talking-heads-playing-themselves--Chris Matthews, Tucker Carlson, Larry King--are deployed to make this scenario seem less ridiculous than it is.)

With the entire election hinging on Bud’s one-man revote, the presidential contenders--a Republican incumbent played by Kelsey Grammer and a Democratic challenger played by Dennis Hopper--descend upon tiny Texico, New Mexico, and, with the help of their devious handlers (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane, respectively), begin tailoring their campaigns to Bud’s ill-informed whims. Soon the Democrat is anti-immigrant and pro-life, the Republican is cutting ads on behalf of gay marriage, and Bud is knocking back beers on Air Force One. Get it?

Political satire needs at least a little bite, but Swing Vote gums interminably. I can’t recall when I’ve ever felt quite so much like porridge. The usual homilies are all trotted out for our admiration: the importance of racial harmony, the dumbing down of the media, the diabolical nature of political consultants. There are a few sharp exchanges (usually involving Tucci or Lane) and a couple of witty political-ad parodies. But apart from these--and an unnecessary, tear-jerky visit to Molly’s estranged mom--the movie rolls along in well-worn tracks. Costner, who’s always been better playing bad boys than straight arrows (think Bull Durham or especially A Perfect World), is likable to a fault as Bud: This is exactly the kind of man--abandoned by his wife, economically squeezed by immigration, utterly alcohol-dependent--whom one might expect to be a bit, you know, bitter. Yet he is as smooth and easygoing as the American brew he favors.

Regular readers will know that I’m generally not a fan of movies that function as political broadsides from either left or right, but part of what makes Swing Vote such mush is its absolute devotion to be neither. Though the movie’s liberal inclinations peek out now and then--the Democrats have to choose between remaining pure and selling out, for instance, while the Republicans’ preferred policies are quietly assumed to be simply wrong--the filmmakers balance every compromise and corruption between the parties with the precision of jewelers. (Well, except for the fact that you’d have to be a madman to let Dennis Hopper anywhere near the nuclear football.) Swing Vote is a polemic about process: It’s vitally important that you vote, the movie argues, but whom you vote for makes not the slightest difference.

Indeed, to a degree the movie seems not even to recognize, it is not about the political ramifications of voting at all, but the therapeutic ones. By the end, Bud has cut back on the Buds and the strong language, re-devoted himself to parenting, and even put on a tie in order to moderate a televised debate between the would-be leaders of the free world. (Take that, Stephanopoulos!) Tellingly though, following an introductory statement in which Bud owns up to his past mistakes, the movie cuts away from the debate, before either candidate has answered a single question. Bud, you see, has gotten his act together. Who cares about the future of the country?

Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.


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