A Frank Capra throwback for an era of diminished expectations, the amiable " Swing Vote" casts Kevin Costner as an unemployed egg processing plant worker who must decide the fate of the state of the union. The hopes and ideals of the apathetic American citizenry are pinned on this hard-drinking resident of Texico, N.M., whose wife ran out on him to pursue a singing career, and whose 12-year-old daughter, played—and very well—by Madeline Carroll, has too long been the caretaker in their coexistence.
The premise is comfortably far-fetched, i.e., just far enough. The presidential election between a Republican incumbent ( Kelsey Grammer) and a Democrat from Vermont ( Dennis Hopper, failing to fully suppress his innate nutso DNA) comes down to a statistical dead heat. Owing to electronic voter error—One? In the entire country? This is a fairy tale!—and a few laborious machinations by screenwriters Jason Richman and Joshua Michael Stern, a single vote to be cast by one Bud Johnson (Costner) will set the course for America's future.
Both candidates, guided by their respective ruthless campaign managers ( Nathan Lane for the Dems, Stanley Tucci for the Republicans), launch into scramble mode as the media circus comes to town and camps outside Bud's trailer park domicile, desperate for a comment. Everything Bud says is over-, mis- or hyper-interpreted by the politicos, and before long the Republican is renouncing his stance on gay marriage, and the Howard Dean-type is clamping down, hard, on illegal Immigration.
Directed by Stern, "Swing Vote" downplays the comic potential in this set-up for ever greater shipments of what has come to be known as "Capra-corn," a facile description of what you find within the populist boundaries of "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and the darker, messier "Meet John Doe." Here the taste is closer to high-fructose Capra-corn syrup. Bud must prove to himself that he's a worthy, informed man of the people, deserving of his fabulously well-informed and idealistic daughter. (She's presumably Democratic; Bud may be undecided, but even with the film's strenuous even-handedness he appears to be leaning toward the incumbent.) The Capra echoes include a semi-corrupt TV reporter (Paula Patton, who's no Jean Arthur, but who is?). She likes Bud and adores his daughter but likes his story more.
"Swing Vote" lopes along and is best taken as a tale of a father and a daughter coming through a rough patch to a better place, rather than anything to do with real-world politics. The movie's insistence that the outcome of the election doesn't matter is sort of galling. The script is content to say simply that we should be smarter. Well, it's a start, I guess. I wish Costner's character weren't such a puddin'-headed write-off (by design, that is; once he begins his political home-schooling, watch out!). Costner yuks it up and sings a little and plays his guitar and reasserts, amiably, his corner of the global movie-star turf.
I like my political serio-comedies with some actual, verifiable politics tucked in there somewhere. But "Swing Vote" is far easier to take than, for example, Barry Levinson's "Man of the Year," which never figured out what sort of movie it wanted to be. This one may be soft and derivative. But the actors establish a groove and stay on-message. And as certain real-life presidents have shown us, staying on-message is especially valuable when you don't have much to say.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language) Running time: 1:59 Opening: Friday Starring: Kevin Costner (Bud Johnson); Madeline Carroll (Molly); Kelsey Grammer (President Andrew Boone); Dennis Hopper (Donald Greenleaf); Nathan Lane (Art Crumb); Stanley Tucci (Martin Fox); Paula Patton (Kate Madison); George Lopez (John Sweeney). Directed by: Joshua Michael Stern; written by Jason Richman and Stern; photographed by Shane Hurlbut; edited by Jeff McEvoy; music by John Debney; production design by Steve Saklad; produced by Jim Wilson and Costner. A Touchstone Pictures release.