The covert intelligence embedded in the boobish political comedy Swing Vote states that we the people are stupid, drunk, apathetic, or all of the above. But on the face of it, the Capra-esque civics lesson conveyed in this pandering fantasy is that every citizen’s vote is crucial to the American electoral process. Not only that, but by properly appreciating the precious gift of participatory democracy (as encouraged by a wise, liberal Hollywood), even the sorriest dumb-ass can shape up overnight into an informed, thoughtful activist, someone deserving of change we can believe in.
Through fictional preposterous happenstance inspired by the real-life preposterous happenstance in Florida that decided the 2000 presidential election, the outcome of the presidential race in Swing Vote’s alternative America rests on the ballot about to be cast by one citizen, a clueless shlub named Bud (Kevin Costner). Bud, a direct descendant in temperament and blood-alcohol level of the elbow benders Costner played in Tin Cup and The Upside of Anger, is a screwup and factory worker in a small New Mexico town. Often he doesn’t wait until his shift is over to begin his real job of boozing and passing out. Bud is also the divorced father of a preternaturally mature 12-year-old daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll, a pint-size Ellen Page in training); the girl cooks, cleans, rouses her father from his stupor each morning in the cluttered trailer home they share, and excels in school by writing essays about the importance of civic participation, etc. So while both the incumbent Republican president (Kelsey Grammer, smoothly embodying a kind of distant relative of our actual Republican president) and the Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper, in a sly bit of casting) go about pandering to their target voter, Bud treats his extraordinary circumstances with all the doltish entitlement of a game-show contestant.
Costner (who’s also a producer) plays to his middle-aged strengths in a role that exaggerates male weaknesses. A beer guzzler in a trucker’s cap, Bud has accepted pickled self-absorption as a daily condition, and Costner throws himself into a display of know-nothingness with an endearing ease that only comes to a movie star who, in all seriousness, once played a man with gills. But the movie’s queasy garble of soft-core satire and rote idealism, as well as its uninspired reworking of old ruts in political comedy, becomes wearing. (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane are equally broad playing win-at-all-costs Republican and Democratic campaign managers, respectively.) It’s difficult to shake the sense that director Joshua Michael Stern (Neverwas), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jason Richman (the upcoming Bangkok Dangerous), is laughing — not with the Buds and the strategizing politicos of the world, but at them.
In Stern’s attempt to have it both ways, his satiric targets prove at once both easy and inconsistent. Journalists are portrayed as spineless when they’re not being duplicitous or heartlessly competitive; small-town America is the province of hicks, except when it suits the art direction to celebrate quaint custom to sentimental advantage. And even as Bud slouches toward responsibility and cleans up his act as a father, this redemption must come at the expense of presenting Molly’s troubled mother (played in a brief, passionate, no-joke turn by Mare Winningham) as an unnurturing wreck.
All the while, well-known pop cultural celebrities, journalists, and pundits mingle freely as themselves. This blurring of boundaries between entertainment and politics is nothing new — how many times have we watched Larry King and James Carville play ”King” and ”Carville”? But the head count of real personages tickled by the opportunity to be treated (and remunerated) as contributors to commercial fakery is dispiriting. Aaron Brown, Tucker Carlson, Arianna Huffington, Bill Maher, and Chris Matthews buy into the circus, as do Willie Nelson and race-car driver Richard Petty. By the time Bud sincerely apprehends his citizen responsibilities (with an assist from Molly and her hard work as her father’s keeper), Swing Vote has swung irrevocably toward condescension. C