Saturday, March 14, 2009

Swing Vote Gets On Base With Predictable Comedy

The best thing about Swing Vote may be that Kevin Costner has finally found a role that's right for him: a do-nothing sarcastic slacker who represents the average American dolt. Costner, though an intelligent writer and director, has never quite had the movie-star acting chops that has made me want to watch him from start to finish as he tries to carry a film. But this is a role that seems to come easy for him, though, as with his character, it certainly doesn't offer many challenges.

The premise of this unlikely dramedy is that the Presidential election comes down to the decision of a single voter in New Mexico (Bud Johnson, played by Costner), whose faulty ballot needs to be recast in order to decide whether the incumbent Republican (Kelsey Grammer) or the Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper) will win the White House.

Ok: an unlikely scenario, I grant you. That's why the first third of the movie drags, since getting us to this convoluted setup seems more tedious than it needs to be. I wish they'd have just been able to give us a five-minute first act and get to the set-up and second act right away, since that's where the dramedy actually begins.

There's nothing here that can't be predicted by a precocious eleven-year old: first one Presidential political operative (Stanley Tucci) suckers our hero with craven political pandering, then the other one (Nathan Lane) tops it, and back and forth the political football bounces. What keeps this kind of well-trod political satire (think Wag the Dog or State and Main) entertaining is that Costner's Bud Johnson is more a symbol than a man: he is the apathetic American Voter, being courted by Cynical Politicians. There are no laugh-out-loud jokes and the satire is more folksy than cutting, but Lane and Tucci give a nice manic counterpoint to Costner's blankfaced laziness.

Meanwhile, Bud's daughter Molly, played by newcomer Madeline Carroll, represents the earnest wonkishness of those of us who truly care about politics. She the kind of kid who seems predestined to grow up to to be an anchor on the McNeil/Lehrer Nightly Newshour, or, as she suggests, chairman of the Fed (though that's unlikely to be as popular an ambition these days). I found Molly a bit too cloyingly civics-class earnest to really take to heart, but what the story does offer is a rather well-done backstory involving Bud and Molly's mother, played in a remarkably acted cameo by Mare Winningham. Winningham's few minutes blows out the other acting in the film and delivers an emotional punch at just the right moment in the narrative, so that we're successfully launched into the film's one and only possible closing. That turn into the improbable finale is an emotional leapfrog moment where a lot of dramadies fall down, but this one tackles it head on and earns - as well as possible given the premiss's artificiality - its inevitable closing grandiosity.

Which is to say that the film ends with a big speech from Bud where - and I doubt I could possibly spoil anything by saying this - he is revealed to have Character After All. I usually hate speeches like that and this one is no different, but since I've accepted the whole movie on its terms so far, it's the only possible speech that Bud could give to end a movie like this.

So it's not a great movie. But I see something of myself in Molly, and I'm a fan of political satire. You could do worse. So if you have to press me - and I figure I'm hesitating a little like Bud here - I suppose that for the five bucks it costs to rent on an otherwise boring Tuesday night, this movie would get my vote.

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