SWING VOTE (2008) ** movie reivew by COOP

Posted on August 5th, 2008
Posted on August 5th, 2008

Imagine if one person had the burden of deciding the next President of the United States. Now imagine that person was a lazy, alcoholic, unemployed, 50-something single father who constantly neglects his 10 year-old daughter yet can’t find his socks without her. Yes, this is supposed to be a comedy but it plays more like a tragedy. I would categorize it as an American fairy tale with a zero for a hero.

Kevin Costner plays Bud Johnson. Bud constantly disappoints his exceptionally brilliant daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) with his alcoholism and apathetic attitude. He can’t hold down a job; he can’t pay the bills and is one incident away from losing Molly to social services. When Bud gets drunk and ruins Molly’s school project by not showing up to the polls to vote in the presidential election, Molly takes advantage of a sleeping volunteer and votes for Bud so she can get the ballot stub. An electrical problem causes the machine to fail and ignore the vote. The government appears and gives the clueless Bud a ten day window to recast it. As fate would have it, the race is so close that Bud’s decision will single-handedly elect the next President of the United States. Once the media catches wind, Bud becomes the most famous man in the world as the two candidates (Kelsey Grammar and Dennis Hopper) descend on the town in a desperate effort to win over the biggest loser in rural New Mexico.

This high concept idea suffers most from a completely unlikable main character. Bud is supposed to be a goofy, flawed-yet-lovable everyman. The look on his daughter’s face erases that lovability as she cries and pleads with him every time he lets her down. About the third time this happens, you’ll be wishing for child services to remove her from this miserable situation. Bud remains a complete buffoon until the last fifteen minutes when he magically grows a conscience and brain to deliver a powerful speech that humbles both presidential candidates and inspires the American people. That’s Hollywood emotional manipulation at its worse since Bud has done nothing to deserve the honor and no time to make the 180 degree switch from lack-wit to super citizen.

The political events that transpire (despite close elections in the past) seem impossible and the actions of the two candidates go full-on cartoonish as they try to please Bud, no matter how the rest of the country derides their reckless flip-flopping. The real issues are passed over in favor of everyone becoming wiser after an eleventh hour soul-searching session. Funny considering Bud never owned-up to not voting in the first place, leading him to commit an actual crime in the film’s last few moments by casting a fraudulent vote. Condoning voter fraud is supposed to make us feel better as Americans? Try again, Hollywood.

While the film seemed to lean to the left at the beginning of the film, I was surprised at how partisan-neutral it became midway through. The filmmakers wisely humanized both political candidates instead of making either one a clear villain. Bud did not reveal any red or blue state agendas when he finally discovered his moral compass. I suppose the filmmakers realized pushing their partisan views would polarize the audience, something that’s kept many recent politically-charged films from making any money. Here’s where “Swing Vote” succeeds, by favoring an anti-apathy theme over a sectarian one. It suggests that listening to the issues and making a sincere effort to stand up for what you believe in is an important duty as an American. If you look at the film as one big public service message, “Swing Vote” almost becomes digestible.

However, Bud is still a loathsome person and introducing us to his slightly worse, junkie ex-wife does not suddenly make him father of the year; nor does making a single gesture at the end make up for years of apathy or parental neglect. I would’ve preferred it if Bud had been played by a 20-something slacker. Then at least we could laugh at his sophomoric antics without having a heartbroken child to feel sorry for. Instead we get Kevin Costner, hee-hawing like a teenager at every free beer and party thrown for him while his daughter cries her eyes out. This behavior kills any sympathy his character can muster later on and severely weakens a film where responsibility is the entire point. Bud’s glaring offenses caused me to cheer at the scene when the town, and the country, turns on him as they realize how the gravity of his ignorance puts all their futures at risk. If his daughter, friends and the entire world can’t find a reason to like Bud, neither can I. I’m surprised no one tried to assassinate him.

The brightest spot in the film came from Madeline Carroll whose unfortunate position as Bud’s daughter gave her some powerful and desperate scenes. Expect to see her competing against Dakota Fanning (“War of the Worlds”) and Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) for some meaty, child actor roles in the coming years. The other interesting performances came from Grammar and Hopper who become increasingly uncomfortable as their unscrupulous campaign managers force them to cater to Bud’s every whim. Their characters embrace their better judgment before the media circus declares them hypocrites. If the candidates had been the main characters instead of Bud, I would’ve been more interested in the message of this preachy, flawed effort.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Trailer below…

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