Two and a half stars (PG-13)
At the screening of Swing Vote I attended, the film proved to be a crowd-pleaser. The film-goers laughed at the spots intended to be funny and didn’t laugh at the dramatic moments. Late in the story, when a poignant question is asked of two politicians, about a fourth of the audience burst into applause. Judging from comments overheard as people exited the theater, it seems that most of them liked what they saw. As is probably obvious from my phrasing, my reaction was less enthusiastic. The movie worked on me to a degree — I’m a sucker for a populist comedy — but holy cow, what a sloppy, sluggish piece of work this crowd-pleaser is.
A well-known comedy axiom is “if they buy the premise, you’re half way home.” The premise of Swing Vote is that the presidential election has come down to one vote. Due to a power failure, the ballot of a citizen of Texaco, N.M., was not counted. It is ruled that the person will get to recast the vote in 10 days, resulting in a media circus and two presidential campaigns focused completely on wooing a single voter. Yes, the notion is patently ridiculous, but I decided to roll with it. Not an easy task, because the plot holes are massive and frequent, but what the heck.
Kevin Costner stars as the targeted voter. I like Costner a lot. Sure, he makes bad decisions sometimes, but he’s a solid actor who is particularly good at playing screwed-up guys who coast by on their charm before finally getting down to business. Here he plays Bud Johnson, a frequently drunk factory worker living in a trailer with his 9-year-old daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll). Most of the time, she plays parent to him, waking him up, reminding him of his obligations and trying to get him to act responsibly.
I enjoyed watching Costner work, grumbling and flailing about convincingly and flashing a sheepish smile at the right moments. Still, though I realized that the story structure required Bud to remain clueless until the climax of the movie, I grew impatient with the character. His tiresome wide-ranging ignorance forced Molly to remain exasperated and, despite a strong performance by young Carroll, I grew tired of herr noble suffering, too.
Hell, the whole movie dragged. Before the screening, I joked with a friend that the running time would be 90 minutes if it was a straight comedy and two hours if it got inspirational. It got inspirational, but only after beating its jokes to death.
Kelsey Grammer plays the Republican president with Stanley Tucci as his Karl Rove-ish handler, with Dennis Hopper as the Democratic candidate and Nathan Lane as his win-at-all-costs campaign manager. The foursome do what they can to make the Crayola satire seem credible, playing out the stereotypes of their parties and flip-flopping on the issues to try and win over Bud. Based on misunderstandings, the Republicans crank out a pro-gay marriage ad, while the Democrats create a startling (and very funny) anti-abortion commercial.
It all builds to the applause-generating question, followed by an abrupt, but even-handed wrap-up. The question is a doozy, but the film treats it as a revelation. I’ve heard both candidates in the current presidential campaign rhetorically ask similar questions. I’ll hold my applause until somebody offers some convincing answers.