There are three different movies crammed into “Swing Vote,” which I don’t need to tell you is not the best way of doing things. One is an inspiring patriotic comedy along the lines of “Dave,” where you come out of it feeling great about the promise of America. Another is a political satire that lays bare all the cynical inner workings of the campaign process. And the third is a simple drama about a shiftless father getting his act together and restoring his daughter’s faith in him.
Collectively, these diverse threads make for one jumbled, over-long movie. I wanted to like it, and I liked many things about it, but man, slicing off about 20 minutes and three subplots would sure improve it.
The premise is that through a fluke of coincidences and irregularities, the presidential election comes down to one guy’s vote. That guy is Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner), a functional alcoholic and single father in the tiny town of Texico, N.M., whose civic-minded daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) was actually doing his voting for him when the electronic voting machine lost power and the ballot wasn’t counted. Now the two candidates are tied, with only New Mexico left to be decided — and the state’s popular vote is a dead tie, which means it’s all up to Bud to re-cast his vote and decide the election.
A media circus naturally ensues, as both candidates — the Republican incumbent President Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) — descend upon Texico and fine-tune their campaign strategies to appeal directly to Bud Johnson. Bud is a politician’s nightmare, a blue-collar, pickup-truck-driving, beer-drinking, low-income man who doesn’t know the first thing about the issues and was in fact passed out drunk on Election Day. He has no idea whom to vote for, and now the whole world is waiting on his decision.
The movie (which was directed by Joshua Michael Stern and written by him and Jason Richman) makes it surprisingly easy to accept the fantasy premise of one man deciding a presidential election, creating a situation that is at least vaguely possible, if not exactly probable. (The timeline is drastically condensed, though, with events that would take weeks in real life being shoehorned into 10 days.) It helps that the film has appearances by several real-life newscasters representing CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, rather than the fake news channels and talking heads you usually see in movies, and that the situation is treated fairly realistically. The Republican and Democratic campaign strategists (played devilishly by Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane, respectively) are about as crafty as you’d expect, and both candidates are plausible politicians rather than caricatures. Dennis Hopper hasn’t seemed this sane in years! (Trivia: He and Kelsey Grammer are actually both staunch Republicans.)
We move into the satire portion of the evening’s program when Boone and Greenleaf start shamelessly pandering to the special-interest group known as Bud Johnson. Boone sends a NASCAR hero to pick up Bud at his trailer and drive him to meet the president at Air Force One, while Greenleaf recruits Willie Nelson to film a TV commercial that addresses Bud directly. Both candidates express discomfort at the idea of completely reversing their positions on the issues just to get Bud’s vote, but then they do it anyway, resulting in outrageously over-the-top campaign ads that earn some of the movie’s biggest laughs.
Bud and Molly’s relationship seems based on Homer and Lisa Simpson’s, with the precocious youngster acting as her jackass father’s conscience, teacher, and babysitter. The 12-year-old actress Madeline Carroll is terrific, easily holding her own among the more experienced cast members, and really selling the emotions in a crucial scene where she expresses her love for her screw-up father to her school class. Kevin Costner, meanwhile, is almost always likable when he appears in comedies, though here he sometimes lays on the “Aw, shucks!” hick persona a little thick.
After some unnecessary tangents involving an unscrupulous TV reporter (Paula Patton) and her boss (George Lopez), and Molly’s relationship with her absentee mother, the film finally comes around to its faith-in-America-restoring finale — which is what it should have been focusing on the whole time. An inspiring musical score has been playing throughout the film, but it isn’t until these last minutes that it actually fits. I feel good about where things end up. I just wish there hadn’t been so many sidetracks and tonal shifts leading up to it.
C+ (1 hr., 59 min.; )