August 7, 2008

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Swing Vote (PG-13)
Kevin Costner is the caricature of the American doofus in the political fable Swing Vote, a movie with lofty intentions but mediocre outcomes.

Bud Johnson (Costner) is a full-time drunk and slacker living in a small New Mexican town. When heís not being parented by his much wiser elementary-school-aged daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll), heís taking prolonged breaks from his job at an egg-packing plant where his Anglo friends complain about the influx of Mexican workers even while, as Bud acknowledges, these newcomers work twice as hard. After a day of half-hearted work and a talking-to from his boss, Bud is supposed to pick up Molly and head to the polls ó itís election day and sheís supposed to watch him vote and learn about his political views for a school report. But Bud doesnít have any political views and forgets all about Mollyís report, so itís Molly who sneaks Budís ballot into the voting machine and Molly who scampers off when the machine shuts off mid-vote.

This vote, as it turns out, is crucial to the national presidential election. Late on election night, the cable newsies report that the presidency isnít decided because New Mexico isnít decided and New Mexico isnít decided because Budís county is in a dead heat, the decision hinging on one vote. Budís vote. State officials ó whom he at first mistakes for child protective services ó show up to explain the situation. Because his vote wasnít properly counted, he gets 10 days to recast. And oh, they say, you probably want to keep this a secret.

Naturally, such situations as the entire future of a country hanging on the whims of one rube canít stay secret for long. Reporter Kate Madison (Paula Patton), who met and was impressed with Molly when she gave an election day speech at school, knew something was afoot with the voting and followed the officials to Budís trailer. Kate gets to break the story, but Bud and his choice soon become the center of a national circus. Within hours, President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and his challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) both descend on the town with the singular purpose of winning the Bud vote.

The movie is at its best when Boone and Greenleaf, led by their respective Karl Roves played by Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane, pander to identify themselves as supporters of what they think is Budís position. When Bud says he supports gay marriage, Republican Boone makes a Bud-focused commercial promising a national right for same-sex marriage. When Bud seems to take a stand as pro-life, Democrat Greenleaf makes a hilariously unsubtle commercial featuring children on a playground disappearing one by one into poofs of smoke because Boone hasnít done anything to stop abortion. They also entice Bud with celebrity ó Boone with NASCARís Richard Petty, Greenleaf with Willie Nelson.

Swing Vote makes some gestures at even smarter territory when it shows Kateís evolution as what started as a local story goes national and she fights to hold on to it. We watch as Kate straightens her curly hair to become more camera ready and we learn that Miss Madison used to be a Morales.

These glimmers of cleverness poking out from the side of the movie donít, however, make up for the sloppy and at times maudlin center of the story. Costner is good as a mess, but the movie doesnít give him much to do other than be a Jeff Foxworthy caricature or give lofty, fake-humble speeches. One such soaring-score-accompanied cheeseball is acceptable in a movie like this; heck, Aaron Sorkin used to excel at making his corny speeches a loveable part of his political creations. But by the third or so time that comes up in this movie, I started to get that particular floppy-necked, queasy-stomached feeling that is the sign of hack writing.

I wish I liked this movie more. I could tolerate Costner, newcomer Carroll has little miss Abigail Breslin written all over her and Hopper and Grammer are fun presidential opponents. (Hopper is a mild-cheddar version of a John Kerry/Howard Dean mash-up whereas Grammer is more Ronald Reagan happy warrior). But the movie doesnít gel ó its funny moments feel like skits and its saccharine ďseriousĒ moments take over as the story goes on.

And this is all after you suspend the very big load of disbelief that is the movieís premise.

Swing Vote has the makings of a fun poli-sci-nerd treat, but only if it got a serious rewrite. C-

Rated PG-13 for language. Directed by Joshua Michael Stern and written by Stern and Jason Richman, Swing Vote is an hour and 40 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Walt Disney Pictures