Tonally and thematically, "Swing Vote" is all over the place. It's a political satire that is, at once, too soft and yet too cynical. It's a familial drama that wishes to tug at the heartstrings, but is done in by cloying prefabrication. It's a morality tale about people led astray, either personally or professionally, and their journey back to just being human. Writer-director Joshua Michael Stern and co-writer Jason Richman (2002's "Bad Company
") have trouble nailing down any of it in a focally honest way, coming up short even as the film presses on for two very overlong hours.
In the dusty small town of Texico, New Mexico, Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is a single father who drinks and swears too much and is about to be fired from his blue-collar factory job. Instead of caring for wise-beyond-her-years daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll), she has no choice but to take on the parental role, waking Bud up in the morning, making him breakfast, and quizzing him on a daily to-do list that he doesn't always follow through with. On the day of the presidential elections, which Molly has insisted he participate in, Bud is a no-show at the voting offices. On a whim, Molly secretly swipes his ballot but is unable to complete filling it out after the power is temporarily knocked out. When the votes are ultimately counted, the race between current republican President of the United States Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and democratic candidate Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) is dead-even. The deciding vote, it turns out, is Bud's, and, as a media frenzy suddenly swarms to Texico and overtakes his life, he is left with an incalculably huge decision destined to impact the history of the entire country.
Part melodrama, part broad comedy, "Swing Vote" aims to take jabs at everything from take-no-prisoner news reporters to crooked political flip-flopping while saying something about working-class America. The satirical bent of the material is not particularly sharp, however, pulling back every time it edges toward pointedness and overwhelming the natural emotions of any given scene via a string-laden music score by John Debney (2007's "Evan Almighty
") that is one of the most unctuous and intrusive of the year. That the film takes place in an alternate universe where a war is not being fought and where the current President seems to have little animosity against him doesn't help matters.
It also is more than a little discouraging that both candidatesPresident Andrew Boone and opponent Donald Greenleafare portrayed as stupid people who can't make decisions on their own, have no detectable value systems, and will do whatever it takes, including lying about their beliefs on issues such as the environment, homosexuality and abortion, in order to win Bud's vote. When Boone and Greenleaf alternately try to become Bud's friend, it is simply a shallow front, and their realizations over their own dishonesty comes too late in the game to be anything other than contrived. By the time the climax arrives and Bud addresses both of them as "extraordinary" men, the viewer is left to wonder whether Bud even knows he was being played by them. It doesn't matter in the least who Bud ultimately votes for because neither one appears to be worthy of the task. Either way, the American people are going to get screwed.
Kevin Costner (2007's "Mr. Brooks
") gets a bad rap in Hollywood, perhaps because he has been at the helm of some overbloated would-be epics himself and isn't always consistent with the projects he chooses to get involved with. Although this may be true, Costner has never been anything other than a consummate professional onscreen. His performances are believable and often brave, and that extends to his role here as Bud Johnson. Bud is a mess of a man, at least at the onset, having no idea how to raise a daughter because he can barely take care of himself. His relationship with Molly is a complicated and uncompromising one, but even when he messes up it is clear that he loves her.
Bud's turnabout in the third act as he finally starts to take responsibility for the mistakes he's made is as good as the film gets, and Madeline Carroll (2007's "Resident Evil: Extinction
") is nothing if not confident and charismatic as the intelligent, put-upon Molly. The rest of the ensemble takes second fiddle to Costner and Carroll, though the lovely Paula Patton (2006's "Déjà Vu
") does manage to stand out as ambitious journalist Kate Madison, whose conscience gets in the way of her initial plan to exploit Bud and Molly for her own benefit. Mare Winningham (coming off of a recent recurring role on TV's "Grey's Anatomy") is also quite memorable in a brief supporting turn as Molly's drug-addicted absentee mother, though this superfluous subplot is one of several that could have been excised in the editing room.
Neither as funny nor as affecting as it wants to be, "Swing Vote" lugubriously takes a minimal premise and proceeds to pan it out to an unwieldy length. Cutting twenty or thirty minutes off the running time might have been beneficial in narrowing in the scope, though it still would not have solved the biggest issue: the viewer's disinterest in the outcome of the election. Why should we care when the filmmakers fail to make a case for either one of the candidates? They're both frauds, and so is the film. "Swing Vote," an altogether lesser and more commercialized version of HBO's excellent docudrama "Recount," only deludes itself into thinking it has something of note to say about the modern-day political process.