Swing Vote is an election-themed comedy that's about twice as smart as you expect it to be and still only half as smart as you wish it were. The clever premise, which would have seemed like pure science-fiction no more than eight years ago, concerns a U.S. presidential election whose outcome hinges on a single misprocessed vote in a single county of a single state. And naturally, this being Hollywood, and director Joshua Michael Stern being an obvious student of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, that vote ends up belonging to the most average of average Joes—Ernest "Bud" Johnson (Kevin Costner), a recently laid-off factory worker in the tumbleweed town of Texico, New Mexico.
It's a novel idea for a movie: As Texico becomes the locus of a global media frenzy, both major-party candidates are forced to abandon their carefully market-tested platforms and stump speeches, their big-money backers and their vested special interests in order to campaign for the favor of a single American voter. It follows that Bud isn't exactly the sharpest tool in the electoral shed, more likely to be found getting shitfaced at the corner bar than sitting at home in his double-wide watching The Situation Room. But hey, that's America, right?
Oh, what a natural-born farceur with a nuanced feel for small-town realities might have made of this! In the Alexander Payne or Jonathan Demme version of Swing Vote, I doubt that Bud's poverty-line existence would be depicted in the same romanticized way it is here—that noble view of the lower classes (they're suffering, but they've got spirit!) that Hollywood has been plying for decades—or that the character would be saddled with one of those fast-talking, wise-beyond-her-years preteen tykes (newcomer Madeline Carroll) who seem to exist only in the movies. And I'd further wager that the film's two presidential candidates wouldn't be as two-dimensional as lawn placards: Andrew Boone, the good-looking, jocular, Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer), who talks to Bud in football metaphors and organizes a personal celebrity endorsement by NASCAR legend Richard Petty; and Donald Greenleaf, the diminutive, brainy, hopelessly urban Democratic upstart (Dennis Hopper).
Stern (who also co-wrote the script with Jason Richman) is a touch too slick—and too soft—for the job of a truly incisive American political farce, but he's also far from stupid, and the longer Swing Vote hangs around, the more engaging it becomes. You could argue that any movie about a 2008 election in which both candidates are middle-aged white men seems positively behind the times, but the film has inspired stretches in which it shows an unexpected hipness to the jive of the modern political machine. When Bud tells an interviewer that he's opposed to "insourcing"—his word for the replacement of American workers with cheaper Mexican ones—the formerly pro-immigration Greenleaf films a tasteless new campaign ad in which he reverses his stance while illegal border-hoppers are seen running for their lives in the background. And when Bud seems to show his support for gay marriage, in short order Boone appears on TV dancing on a rainbow flag with a chorus line of screeching gay caricatures. Iraq barely merits a mention, but abortion does—in a movie being released by a division of the Walt Disney Co., no less! Politicians willing to say or do anything in order to win aren't exactly news, but Stern and Richman are making (or at least trying to make) a bigger comment on our national obsession with competition and end results, and how it can lead perfectly decent people on both sides of the ballot box to betray themselves in the process.
Swing Vote oscillates wildly between spot-on satire and boldfaced parody without ever quite striking a comfortable balance, and it's nothing if not overstuffed: I haven't even mentioned the ambitious local TV reporter (Paula Patton) that the movie shoehorns into the mix in a rather pedestrian attempt to weigh in on the ethics (or lack thereof) of the 24-hour news cycle. But Costner, playing the sort of good-hearted rube that has always been his strong suit, keeps things grounded. Watching him, you're reminded that he's one of the few movie stars of his generation who can convincingly play rural and working-class, and who projects a kind of raffish, old-fashioned masculinity that has been all but metrosexualized out of the cinema. In one scene late in the film, when Bud confronts the drug-addled wife (an excellent Mare Winningham) who abandoned him and their daughter, you're also reminded that Costner can be a powerful dramatic actor when the occasion calls for it. Those three or four minutes of screen time bristle with the darker aspects of poverty and bottomed-out dreams that the very likable Swing Vote otherwise shies away from. So it's no surprise that, just as Bud asks his big question at a presidential debate organized for his benefit—the one about why so many people in the supposedly richest country in the world can't afford to live here anymore, which may also be the question foremost in many Americans' minds right now—the syrupy music swells, the camera cranes up and the screen fades to black.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.