Emptyopens: Friday, Aug. 1 (Walt Disney)
As political comedies go, "Swing Vote" doesn't dig very deep into the American political scene, and it certainly mines few laughs along the way. Cast more as a middle-aged redemption tale about a loser dad, this dramatic comedy starring Kevin Costner paints a surprisingly sour portrait of nearly all its characters, so much so that even the final-reel redemption rings hollow and forced.
The film features not only such stellar actors as Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane but such starry political commentators as James Carville, Arianna Huffington, Bill Maher and Chris Matthews. None of which will save "Swing Vote" from a low turnout at the boxoffice.
Taking its cue from the 2000 presidential election, where the presidency came down to a few precincts in Florida, "Swing Vote" imagines a close presidential contest narrowing down to a miscast ballot by one man in a tiny New Mexico town. That man is Costner's Bud Johnson -- named apparently after his favorite beverage. Election laws allow him to recast his ballot in 10 days, thus giving both presidential candidates and the U.S. media a chance to fly into town for the sorry spectacle of the two politicos pitching an entirely new campaign to one man. Only his judgmental 12-year-old daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), knows the truth: Bud got drunk and never showed up at the polling station, causing Molly herself to try but fail to cast her dad's ballot.
(The film fails to acknowledge an assist to Jason Richman and director Joshua Michael Stern's screenplay from the 1939 film "The Great Man Votes," in which John Barrymore plays an alcoholic widower with two small children who finds himself courted by mayoral candidates when it is learned he is the only registered voter in a key precinct.)
Naturally, the Republican president (Grammer) and his Democratic challenger (Hopper) and their respective and very cynical aides (Tucci and Lane, respectively) -- each feeling superior to their bewildered bosses -- trip over one another to court this single voter. Suddenly, a right-winger is embracing the environment and gay marriage while the left-winger switches to an anti-immigration, anti-abortion platform. Only one vote counts, after all.
None of this is as hilarious as the filmmakers seem to think, but more disturbing than failed satire is the sheer nastiness that pervades the forlorn tale: The politicians are all sellouts; the father is a drunk; all journalists are carnivores save for a local news hen (Paula Patton) who undergoes a third-act epiphany; and all parents are derelicts in more ways than one. In the latter case, Mare Winningham's single scene as Molly's drug-addled, apathetic, unloving mom is profoundly disturbing without having any dramatic point within the context of this story.
Director Stern lets the film slip into both dramatic and visual monotony. More scenes begin with the bitter kid-parent rousing the buffoonish parent-kid from his inebriated slumber in their home -- a double-wide trailer -- than you would think possible. Characters continue to hit the same notes over and over without any further understanding of their psyches. A mob of journalists surrounds the double-wide for days on end. (Yet on one occasion, Costner is seen walking around town and into his favorite bar without a newsperson in sight.) Scenes between Voter No. 1 and the candidates are virtually all the same.
Perhaps unwittingly, "Swing Vote" makes a great case for an oligarchy.
Touchstone Pictures in association with Radar Pictures and 1821 Pictures presents a Treehouse Films production
Cast: Kevin Costner, Madeline Carroll, Paula Patton, Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci, George Lopez, Judge Reinhold; Director: Joshua Michael Stern; Screenwriters: Jason Richman, Joshua Michael Stern; Producer: Jim Wilson, Kevin Costner; Executive producers: Robin Jonas, Ted Field, Paris Kasidokostas Latsis; Director of photography: Shane Hurlbut; Production designer: Steve Saklad; Music: John Debney; Costume designer: Lisa Jensen; Editor: Jeff McEvoy.
Rated PG-13, 120 minutes.