© 2008 Ray Wong
It's election year, and what's more topical than the continuing debate of "red" vs. "blue" states? Swing Vote tries to take a swipe at the political process from the point of view of a little girl. The result is a halfway house between political satire and family drama.
Bud (Kevin Costner) is an egg factory worker whose main goal in life is to get through the day without getting fired or too drunk. He's a 40-something single father, but in reality he's more like an overgrown 14-year-old. Meanwhile, his ten-year-old daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), is really the master of the house. She cooks, cleans, washes, pays the bills, and even drives herself home when her father was too drunk. What Molly wants the most is for Bud to care about what's going on in the world. To her, civil duties are very important, especially on election day. She urges her father to come to the polling place to vote.
When Bud doesn't show up, Molly gets angry and she decides to vote for Bud instead. But a chain of events render her (or Bud's) vote invalid. She thinks it's the end of the story, until the result of the election comes down to one single state, one single county, and finally one single vote: Bud's. Suddenly, Bud becomes the most important person in all of America -- the President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) wants him, the Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) wants him, and everyone wants him. Meanwhile, Bud gets the hang of the idea of being a celebrity (even only for ten days until he recasts his vote), and thinks everything is a joke. Unbeknownst to him and to Molly's dismay, he's slowly turning the political process upside down with a circus around it. Who will he choose? Does it even matter? What does it mean to be American?
Kevin Costner (Mr. Brooks) hasn't had a certifiable hit for a long time; yet he remains one of America's most recognizable stars. There's a reason to that, and the character Bud reminds us of that reason: he's a lovable, everyday kind of guy. Bud is every bit of a loser, someone we'd love to laugh at and ridicule. Bud is all that, but at the same time, Costner's earnestness and genuine cluelessness evoke the audiences' empathy. Sure, he's dumb, uneducated, sad, broken, and irresponsible, but at the same time he's also a loving father, and basically a good-hearted guy. Costner is very good at portray a quintessential lovable loser.
Madeline Carroll (Resident Evil: Extinction) is really good as Molly -- she has a wide range of emotions and her performance is natural and convincing. She also has one of the most three-dimensional characters in the film and she delivers. The chemistry between her and Costner is key for us to feel the genuine connection between father and daughter, and makes us believe they would stick together despite all the problems they have. Paula Patton (Deja Vu) has relatively brief but important role as reporter Kate Madison. She's gorgeous and lovely, and does her job.
The rest of the cast seems to have a good time with this project: Kelsey Grammer (X-Men: The Last Stand) plays a US President seeking reelection with an equal dose of self-deprecating humor and seriousness, and Dennis Hopper (Sleepwalking) plays his Democratic challenger, aptly named Greenleaf, with dashes of befuddlement and shrewdness (yet we miss the edgy, crazy Dennis Hopper). Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada) and Nathan Lane (The Producer) play the President's chief of staff and Greenleaf's campaign chief respectively, but their performances are limited by blatant caricatures. George Lopez (Balls of Fury) doesn't have much to do as a local news producer, while Judge Reinhold (The Santa Clause 3) seems to have fun being Bud's fellow country bumpkin.
The concept of the story, written by writer-director Joshua Michael Stern (Neverwas) and Jason Richman (Bad Company), has the potential of being a sharp political satire much like 2006's Thank You for Smoking. Instead, the characters, with the exception of Molly, feel more like caricatures than real people. Even Bud seems like a collection of stereotypes. Surely the writers must have been thinking: "Who is the most unlikely hero we can put in that situation?" Thus born the ultimate loser (yet lovable so we have something to root for). Loser are fun to laugh at, but after a while, the schtick becomes tiring. We keep seeing Bud making a fool of himself and Molly over and over again, and we start to ask, "What the Hell is this guy's problem?" No one can be that stupid, right? And we keep waiting for the moment when Bud would wise up and be responsible for a change. He does, but only until the last reel of the film -- too little, too late.
Granted, I think it's equally unrealistic if Bud would make a 180-degree change. He's been a slack for forty-some years, after all. So in a way I appreciate the writers for not going down that route. Still, Bud's behavior eventually grates on my nerves as I start to say to myself, "Dude, grow up already." Bud's character is more suitable for gross-out comedies such as The Stepbrothers or Knocked Up.
Thus lies the second problem of the script: the writers can't decide whether it's a family drama or a political satire. There are indeed some poignant moments, especially between Molly and Bud, who have the best onscreen relationship of the entire film. As a political satire, however, the film falls flat. The characters (especially Mr. President and Mr. Greenleaf) are very unconvincing, and the situations are simply absurd. The premise is outlandish to begin with -- it takes a huge dose of suspension of disbelief -- so add cartoonish characters to that mix and you have something that is half-cooked.
Stern's direction is brisk and adequate, however. The comic timing is generally spot on and there are some funny, witty moments. I specifically like the campaign ads -- they're so ridiculous that they're hilarious. But that's the thing -- the tone of the political satire doesn't mesh with the dramatic part of the story. Everything feels too superficial and convenient.
While this is not a complete disaster, don't expect something like Thank You for Smoking. My vote is this: stay home and rent the DVD some other time, preferrably after the real election in November.
Stars: Kevin Costner, Madeline Carroll, Paula Patton, Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci, George Lopez, Judge Reinhold, Charles Esten
Director: Joshua Michael Stern
Writers: Jason Richman, Joshua Michael Stern
Distributor: Walt Disney
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language
Running Time: Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 6.8 out of 10