Kevin Costner stars as Bud Johnson, the kind of man that only goes to work in the morning to make enough money to buy beer with. He doesn’t particularly care about anything except relaxing and raising his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll). Molly is not a chip off the old block. She’s bright and driven with hopes and aspirations far beyond her years, and young enough to be a natural idealist. It’s a little off-putting actually. She’s kind of like Santa Claus: charming as an idea, but hard to really believe in.
Her character being what it is, Election Day is Christmas for her; the sum total reason for her being. Since she can’t vote, all of that weight is transferred to Bud, who isn’t really up to it. He’s supposed to be her polar opposite, lazy and cynical where she’s precocious and optimistic, which means he’s naturally opposed to voting on principal. He’s our stand-in for all the people who don’t bother to vote on the conviction that it won’t affect their lives in any real way, which is what “Swing Vote” is really about.
Through a series of events that could only happen in rural America as envisioned by Hollywood, a voting machine error invalidates Bud’s vote, a vote which because of the complex, antiquated system that is the Electoral College, will decide whether the next President of the United States is incumbent Republican Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) or Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper). Faster than you can say “media circus”, one swoops down on little Texico, New Mexico, as the presidential campaigns quickly converge on Bud to make their case for who should be President.
At this point, the farcical nature of the film should set in, but it doesn’t ever really make it. Writer/director Joshua Michael Stern seems unsure exactly what kind of film he’s going for. The over-the-top nature of Presidential campaigns naturally lend themselves to farce, but Stern often pulls back from his own setups, in order to keep the film on a more realistic footing. It sounds good in theory but doesn’t really work in practice. Mixing messages with broad comedy isn’t a particularly good idea, and it doesn’t really work here either. The result is very broad, very cheap punches at the presidential campaigns. Having the campaigns completely reverse their platforms in order to woo Bud’s vote the Republican’s switch tracks to become pro-environment, pro-gay marriage, while the Democrats make several prolife, anti-immigration commercials is initially funny but quickly gets driven into the ground. That is unfortunately the height of satire “Swing Vote” goes for, puncturing the same easy targets everyone else has for years.
It floats instead on Costner’s considerable charm and screen presence, which makes Bud something of a non-character. He just sort of goes along for the ride, reacting to the things that are happening to him, but not being changed by them in any real way. Mostly that’s because he’s not the focus of the film, despite the fact he represents what the film is about. The real focus is Molly who is trying to figure out how to get what she wants out of life while being stuck with the often thankless job of being half-daughter, half-mother, and half-wife to Bud. Yes, that’s three halves. Carroll is very charming in the role, but the schizophrenic nature of “Swing Vote” means that as it goes on, she has less and less to do with the electoral story and becomes more wrapped up in her own personal story, about her rapid disillusionment with Bud and her desire to find her biological mother (Mare Winningham) whom she doesn’t really know. Playing off her personal story with the larger than life antics of the campaigns is another good idea that doesn’t work in practice as the two aren’t integrated well and eventually Molly starts to become a distraction instead of a focus.
It doesn’t help that neither of the main characters are as interesting as the two presidential candidates, especially Grammer’s President Boone. They’re one of the areas of real subtlety and consideration in the film. It would have been all too easy to cast one of them as the villain; obnoxious, self-important, willing to do anything to win. Most of that has instead been given to their campaign chiefs (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane), who at least get to make the point that it doesn’t matter how good the goals of the loser are, which is shortsighted but not entirely without merit. However, it does free up Grammer and Hopper to portray their character as men of character, men who genuinely want to help their fellow Americans, but just have different ideas how to go about it. Men who are uncomfortable with compromising their principles in order to win; who struggle with the decision between what they want and what is right. I suspect a movie entirely from their points of view would be far more interesting than what we’ve got. Which isn’t bad, it must be said, just sort of bland.
“Swing Vote” has its moments, especially when Grammer or Hopper are around, but it’s trying to do too much, even throwing in yet another subplot about the media’s complicities in devaluing issues in favor of stories. There’s so many ideas floating around in there, it all ends up being very shallow. Some good performances and a light directorial touch keep it from being boring, but when all’s said and done, there’s not much really there.