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Swing Vote

Posted Tuesday, September 2, 2008, at 10:35 AM

(Photo)
Kevin Costner and Madeline Carroll play working-class father and daughter in Joshua Michael Stern's film.
By MANOHLA DARGIS

A pleasant muddle about life, liberty and the pursuit of Budweiser, among other noble and base causes, "Swing Vote" is also one of the most surprising, politically suggestive movies to come out of Hollywood this year. Topped by a gruffly appealing Kevin Costner as a good ole drunk whose vote will decide the American presidency, it takes place in the kind of New Mexico town that might once have been thought of as Capraesque, but in depressed spirit and hard-times veneer comes across like a Dust Bowl Hooverville. The film has a Red State setup -- the Nascar champ Richard Petty zooms by -- and a serious case of the blues.

Directed by the relative newcomer Joshua Michael Stern ("Neverwas"), who wrote the screenplay with Jason Richman after, it appears, watching Garson Kanin's 1939 movie "The Great Man Votes" (in which John Barrymore's boozer has a decisive vote), the film takes its sweet time getting going. Mr. Costner's entrance as the resident everyman, Bud Johnson, couldn't be less heroic or more symbolic: he's passed out and snoring, stretched out in last night's jeans, when his 12-year-old daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), disgustedly shakes him awake. A former cover-band musician whose life has become a blur of benders, Bud has turned his beery nickname into a lifestyle. This drink's for him, and so are the next 11.

Bud isn't bad, of course, just one of those good-time guys who has reached a dead end after too many wrong turns. He and Molly live alone in a tumbledown trailer (the girl's mother went AWOL long ago) with stained walls and no telephone or hot water. He barely makes it to his factory job and when he gets there, you understand why. With his friends Walter (Judge Reinhold) and Lewis (Charles Esten), he packs chicken eggs in a swirl of feathers. It's a living, if not anything like the high-flying kind that often shows up in modern Hollywood, where leading men tend to play cops and robbers or white-collar variations on doctor, lawyer and corporate chief. Factories belong in other countries (China), other movies (documentaries) too.

The story kicks in after Bud, having promised Molly he would vote in the presidential election, ends up zonked out in his truck. One thing leads to another flatly outlandish thing, and before you can grumble high-concept hooey, both the conservative presidential incumbent, Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer, all smiles), and his liberal opponent, Donald Greenleaf (a tamped-down Dennis Hopper), have descended on Bud's town. Accompanied by the usual fast-talking handlers, stone-faced Secret Service men, news twerps and gadflies, the candidates take sneaky, then obvious turns pulling Bud this way and that -- his choices come down to either nuclear annihilation or the rainbow White House -- until they themselves have been bent so far out of shape, so contorted by politicking, that they're almost unrecognizable.

As a message movie, "Swing Vote" couldn't be louder, even if it can be difficult at first to know which message it wants to send. Molly, a walking, talking megaphone, delivers a speech during a class presentation -- a left-leaning warning about voter complacency leading to enslavement -- that attracts the notice of a local television reporter, Kate Madison (Paula Patton), a looker with major-network dreams. Her boss, played by George Lopez at full volume, can't wait to escape, either, which broadcasts another message. Namely that the small town as it was idealized by Hollywood is no longer just a potential trap, the way it seems to James Stewart in Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." It's a dying and dead zone.

If that doesn't sound riotously funny, it isn't. But neither is "Swing Vote," despite Bud's crinkly grin, some slapstick, a few comic faces (Nathan Lane's included) and a handful of belly laughs, the biggest of which skewer anti-abortion and anti-immigration rhetoric. This being Hollywoodland, the movie refuses to take sides -- actually, it takes them, it just doesn't admit that it does. There's no doubt who's right and who's not. The candidates aren't party ideologues, though; they're decent men led astray by fear and ambition. Bud himself has been sidelined by drink, apathy and bad luck, but also by forces beyond his control, and the movie doesn't pin his woes exclusively on him. His American dream was as much stolen as squandered.

As it swerves from comedy to drama, from light laughs to dark thoughts -- an emotionally brutal scene with a fantastic Mare Winningham as Molly's mother nearly tears a hole in the film -- "Swing Vote" becomes less cohesive and more interesting than it was when Bud crawled out of his first hangover. Unlike classic Capra heroes, those readymade saviors of the people, Bud has been gripped by indifference for far too long to take much notice of anyone beyond his daughter and a few friends. Though the intrusive wall-to-wall music tries to lighten (and direct) the mood at every interval, melancholy clings to this film. Mr. Costner, who eases into his role gracefully, isn't playing the hero, just a guy who has to save himself.

In this he certainly isn't alone, as the plump public in "Wall-E" and some Gotham citizens in "The Dark Knight" in turn discover. Though Bud's initial indifference brings to mind those two films and their suddenly awakened populations, "Swing Vote" is a mainstream, eager-to-please, relatively generic endeavor, not an auteurist showcase. Mr. Stern does nice work with the actors, even the weak ones. But it's difficult to pick out a distinctive voice amid the loud music and equally blaring commercial imperatives that mandate that even the sharpest political jabs be delivered with smiles. In Hollywood every cloud has a silver lining, and this one also comes with Willie Nelson.

"Swing Vote" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). The expletives are undeleted.

SWING VOTE

Directed by Joshua Michael Stern; written by Jason Richman and Mr. Stern; director of photography, Shane Hurlbut; edited by Jeff McEvoy; music by John Debney; production designer, Steve Saklad; produced by Jim Wilson and Kevin Costner; released by Touchstone Pictures. Running time: 2 hours.

WITH: Kevin Costner (Bud Johnson), Madeline Carroll (Molly Johnson), Paula Patton (Kate Madison), Kelsey Grammer (President Andrew Boone), Dennis Hopper (Donald Greenleaf), Nathan Lane (Art Crumb), Stanley Tucci (Martin Fox), George Lopez (John Sweeney), Judge Reinhold (Walter), Charles Esten (Lewis), Mare Winningham (Larissa Johnson), Richard Petty (Himself) and Willie Nelson (Himself).

Thanks to the New York Times.



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