Touchstone Pictures // 2008 // 120 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Katie Herrell (Retired) // February 2nd, 2009
A nobody becomes the voice of everybody.
Swing Vote is a political science lesson put to music and starring Kevin Costner (also a producer) and a cadre of other A-listers. It is an in-your-face attempt to both lampoon the political process and idealize it. Like most political (or a-political) messages, it has dashes of greatness, but ultimately drags on too long, suffering from being overwrought and over-thought.
Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is a loser. Saddled with a precocious child, after his wife hops on the crazy train, he becomes a drinking, swearing piece of trash. His young daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), becomes his caretaker and sole reason for being. When she attempts to invoke Bud's right to vote, an unplugged voting machine thrusts Bud into the national spotlight as the one vote needed to determine the outcome of a contentious presidential election. As a result, Bud becomes a kind of candidate, as both the nominees and the country overwhelm him with their needs and wants, in an effort to capture his swing vote.
As I wrote the above paragraphs, I realized I do not have a concrete memory of which candidate Bud ultimately voted for. That's because as hard as I tried to stay focused, after about an hour, the latest issue of Vanity Fair became much more compelling than the second half of Swing Vote.
That's not to say the movie didn't start out far more engaging than I expected. Bud Johnson was much meaner, lazier, and more selfish than was necessary...and Kevin Costner was completely ill-suited for the role. Most bum-like characters have some redeeming qualities (Bud does, ultimately, reveal a cascade of goodness) or else they are portrayed as completely psychotic. But Bud made one stupid misstep after another and Costner played those missteps like a bumbling fool. Putting on a dirty shirt and growing a three-day shadow of a beard doesn't instantly transform a good-looking, successful movie star into a ne'erdowell. The bonus feature "Inside the Campaign: The Politics of Production" indicates that director Joshua Michael Stern was intrigued by the thought of Costner stepping away from his lovable roots but, based on the film, it didn't seem like Stern pushed Costner hard enough off the podium.
There is talent in the up-and-coming acting gene pool though, and Madeline Carroll (Molly) is a strong little specimen. Unfortunately, her name is listed only in small print on the DVD case, while the cover blares the names of Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci, George Lopez, Paula Patton (who?), and, of course, Kevin -- none of whom shone brighter than Carroll. Molly emotes, cries, and harangues her dad in a realistic manner. She's put in some interesting, uncomfortable, even verbally abusive situations with her drunkard father, positions which are likely responsible for the PG-13 rating, when at its heart of hearts this film is a PG.
There are a lot of things (besides a family film) this movie tries to be and fails. There's the miraculous arrival of a stand of bleachers (to hold the media and other onlookers) in the Johnson's trailer park which is reminiscent of Field of Dreams. There are the over-the-top jabs at political flip-flopping and grandstanding, such as the underdog candidate's last name (Greenleaf) and the ridiculous anti-abortion ad where children are suddenly zapped into a puff of colorful smoke. There's the eerie greened out trailer scenes which reminded me of Monster's Ball, where Molly dons a pious nightgown and cross, as she and her father try to persuade two, presumably, child services' officials of their healthy lifestyle. Thankfully, they cut the scene where President Andrew Boone likens himself to the Tinman, but it's included on the special features. By themselves, all of these scenes are interesting angles for the film and show the range of the director, who co-wrote the script with Jason Richman (Bangkok Dangerous). But, when mashed together, these scenes make for a movie without a clear vision.
Ultimately, Swing Vote is a movie about the importance of each individual vote. When Bud swaps his baseball cap for a suit jacket, there's a clear turning point in the story. Hope is renewed; Love has a chance; Candidates agree to disagree; And Bud and his daughter become the working class heroes this movie should have portrayed them as in the first place.
Guilty. It's too bad such a nobody got to be the voice of everybody.
Review content copyright © 2009 Katie Herrell; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted & Extended Scenes
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review