Swing Vote is a film by Joshua Michael Stern that is launched by a zany Billy Wilder-esque idea: what if the presidential election came down to the vote of one drunken loser living in a trailer in Texico, New Mexico? My fellow Americans, I know the films of Billy Wilder. Joshua Michael Stern, you are no Billy Wilder.
Swing Vote, which I was hoping would be one of the year’s worst films, isn’t; there are about three laughs in it, meaning it rates above at least a dozen comedies I’ve seen in 2008. For about 15 minutes in the middle, when the Republican president (Kelsey Grammer) and the Democratic candidate (Dennis Hopper) start throwing all of their principles to the piranhas in order to win over the vote of the loutish unemployed single dad Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner), the movie actually shows signs of life. Based on offhand comments Bud makes in interviews during a ten-day period when he is thinking about how he should vote, the Republican runs a rainbow-flag TV commercial sending a great big fabulous wet kiss at gay marriage, and the Democrat runs one commercial showing the country being overrun by Mexicans and another in which little kids shown at a playground disappear in puffs of smoke to symbolize the ills of abortion.
But Billy Wilder would have had enough ideas to fill up the movie and busted every gut in the theater. Swing Vote instead mounts a tactical assault on the tear ducts while sincerely arguing, with violins set on swell, that politicians are really decent guys. Which is the nuttiest idea in the film.
Bud, a guy who has been late to work every day for six months and who drinks so much on the job that he gets fired from his food-processing gig, nevertheless swears to his civic-minded little girl that he’ll do his citizenly duty and vote for the president. Instead he gets drunk again. (And by the way, cheers to the marketers at Budweiser, who have plastered their logos all over this film about a lazy alcoholic criminal dirtbag.)
The daughter, a grade-schooler, goes to the polling station and, thanks to a snoozing check-in clerk, manages to sneak a ballot and enter it into an electronic vote tabulator. But someone accidentally pulls the plug on the machine before she votes. She gets spooked and runs away after having cast a blank ballot, which according to the Al Gore logic of this movie is grounds for a revote.
That isn’t the only problem with the setup. We’re supposed to believe that this is the only ballot in the entire state of New Mexico that anyone disputes. Moreover, it is stated early in the film that Bud is a felon, yet no one brings this up as a possible complication of his right to vote. Strangest of all, this film, which wants to be considered a middle-of-the-road instruction manual for good citizenship, is blasé on the illegality of one person casting a vote on another’s behalf, much less the fact that the would-be voter is a minor. The Constitution has already provided for a situation in which no one gets a majority of the electoral votes. The election goes to the House. There is no crisis. The law is clear. Little Molly can’t be both the impassioned voice of the dutiful American and a tiny fraudster.
Yet it’s the girl who nudges and begs her dad, who has no policy opinions, to become a serious, well-informed citizen by the time he votes. The girl needs a real daddy to emerge from Bud, while the nation needs a chief executive to emerge from the political equivalent of a messy trailer.
The girl’s shoulders are too thin to carry this burden. When the presidency is at stake, does it really matter if some guy in New Mexico forgets to show up at his daughter’s special day in school? The film would have been wiser to rummage around inside the heads of its dueling political consultants, one played icily by Stanley Tucci on the GOP side and the other by Nathan Lane, as a perpetual backer of losing donkeys obviously modeled on Robert “the Curse of Shrummy” Shrum. Both will do anything to win, and that’s as far as the movie goes with them.
The movie isn’t nearly as bad as the inane Robin Williams yukker Man of the Year, in which an ordinary guy threatened to become president, but Swing Vote would have benefited greatly from being cut by 20 minutes. That would have meant reducing the many scenes in which Bud acts like a jerk and his daughter (something of a pill herself) berates him for it.
A merciless trim would also have forced the movie to be less fascinated with cameras and microphones. It can’t stop telling us the media are really interested in Bud. TV crews camp outside his door, commentators analyze him, lights shine in his face, reporters beg for interviews. But so what? A usually reliable indicator of a bad movie is this: It contains, as Swing Vote does, the credit “Larry King as himself.” Movies that show their characters on Fox News and the covers of magazines aren’t quite sure they’re interesting on their own. They plead: Look! Our story made the cover of a fake issue of InTouch, so it must be good!
Directed by Joshua Michael Stern
Starring: Kevin Costner, Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane
1.5 stars/ 4
120 minutes/Rated PG-13