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Costner’s Swing Vote crashes in flyover country

by Glen Baity

First,let me emphasize that I understand writing a political comedy,especially for the United States in 2008, must be difficult. Goodcomedy is hard on its own; toss in thorny political and social issuesand you’ve got a near-impossible balancing act. So Swing Vote’s horrible failure is at least understandable. Butthere’s just so much to hate about it, even my considerable empathy isoutmatched. This film is just terrible. In virtually every way, foreach of its 100 minutes, it is appalling in its awfulness. It ispreachy, Pollyannaish and boring, a neo- Capra civics lesson that,against all odds, manages to actually be stupider than our existingpolitical discourse. Swing Vote plays out in a familiarmodern-day America bitterly divided in its politics and culture. Thefilm opens on the first Tuesday in November, which finds incumbentRepublican president Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) fighting to win asecond term against Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (DennisHopper). As the returns come in, it becomes apparent that the countryhas an Election 2000 scenario on its hands: One swing county in theup-for-grabs state of New Mexico will dictate who wins a decisive fiveelectoral votes, thus clinching the presidency. And in thattiny county, the vote is deadlocked until election officials uncover asingle, uncounted ballot, belonging to a proudly apolitical deadbeatnamed Bud (Kevin Costner). Bud receives an in-person visitfrom the secretary of state informing him that he’ll be able to recasthis ballot in 10 days, an arbitrary number that allows plenty of timefor the media swarm to descend. And descend it does, once word gets outthat Bud’s is the One Ballot to Rule Them All. But our hero — at leastinitially — is not displeased to find the world’s most powerfulpoliticians angling for his affection. He’s just lost his job at theegg packaging plant, after all, and a few fruit baskets and a beeraboard Air Force One sure can lift a guy’s spirits. The onlything keeping him grounded is his genius pre-teen daughter Molly(Madeline Carroll), who has somehow managed to educate herself to thelevel of a college senior, despite having been only sporadicallyparented for her entire life. The Lisa Simpson to Bud’s Homer, she putsher father to bed when he drinks too much, cooks his food and futilelytries to get him to obey his better impulses. Inthe week and a half leading up to Bud’s revote, he’ll become a nationaldarling and a national laughingstock as the media machine has its waywith him. To his credit, Costner is appealing enough as the anonymousJoe Sixpack. But the very presence of the character, which seemsspawned from the limited imagination of a cable news pundit, is adetriment to the film. Right down to the smallest detail, Bud readslike the Common Man caricature of popular political imagination: Hedrinks domestic beer, worships Willie Nelson, works a blue-collar joband doesn’t follow politics. In case you’re not sold on his allencompassing Regular Guyness, he even has a Camaro up on blocks in thefront yard of his trailer. There’s a separate conversation tobe had about why the film chooses a guy like Bud for its Everyman, butthat would leave precious little space to discuss how predictable andcondescending Swing Vote is. For example (spoiler alert): Near the end of the film, Bud moderates a debate between the two presidential contenders. Butinstead of asking questions, he reads to the contenders from the pilesof hard luck stories he’s received in the mail since Election Day. Andthe film actually treats this as an amazing idea, as if nopresidential candidate has ever received a letter from a person withouthealth insurance. This masterstroke comes at the close of along personal journey, during which Bud figures out that he should quitbeing such a lout, be good to his daughter and treat his civic dutywith the gravity it deserves. Though it takes him forever tocome to these fairly self-evident conclusions, director/co-writerJoshua Michael Stern bathes him in warm light and punctuates even hismost mundane personal revelations with orchestral swells, as ifdeciding to not be a jerk is tantamount to opening a hospital for sickorphans. Rarely has a film praised its hero so much for doing solittle. You might not notice that Bud spends so much timenavel-gazing, he doesn’t get around to actually learning about theissues until the zero hour. These are treated as an afterthought, andBud’s cram session unfolds in one of the most jarringly stupid montagesequences in modern film. In the end, he’s humbled by theresponsibility and shell-shocked at how the media has chewed him up andspit him out. The most maddening thing about the film is how itcongratulates itself for taking brave positions like 1) voting isimportant, and 2) the media do not always portray people fairly. Ifyou’re among the millions of people who are well aware of these twolessons, you might consider casting your vote for a film that won’ttalk down to you and bore you to tears.

To comment on this story, e-mail Glen Baity at glen.baity@gmail.com.

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