Swing Vote (Touchstone Pictures) isn’t exactly a toothless political satire. It’s something worse: a satire with dentures. What little bite it manages to apply against the American electoral system is fake, to be removed at will whenever a truly chewy topic comes up. Some of the issues the movie gums include abortion, immigration, and the unacknowledged alcoholism of its own main character.
For starters, the moment in American politics this comedy spoofs now feels so remote, it might as well be the Harrison/Van Buren race of 1840. ( Tippecanoe and Costner too!)Given our current political reality: two foreign wars, a terrorist threat, and the first racially diverse presidential campaign in American history—the hanging-chad woes of the 2000 election are the last thing on our minds. The film’s premise, that a hotly contested presidential race somehow comes down to a single vote, is not without its populist charm. Frank Capra could have done something with it. But I knew Frank Capra (OK, I’ve seen a lot of his movies) and you, director/co-writer Joshua Michael Stern, are no Frank Capra.
Nor is Kevin Costner a Gary Cooper. But it isn’t Costner’s fault that Swing Vote is such a formless, pasty blob of a movie. As Bud Johnson, a divorced father on the verge of losing his job at an egg-packing plant, he’s in his comfort zone as an actor, playing the kind of dim-bulb, salt-of-the-earth loser he’s carried off nicely in movies such as Bull Durham and Tin Cup. (It’s when Costner roles get steely-eyed and morally upright that you need to start worrying.) Bud and his young daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) live in semi-squalor in a trailer on the Texas/New Mexico border. Their relationship—he’s a low-functioning drunk; she’s a hectoring enabler—is depressing to a near-tragic degree, though the filmmakers seem convinced of its bantering charm.
Molly, a precocious political junkie (when she grows up she wants to be “either a veterinarian or chairman of the Fed”), spends Election Day nagging her father about his civic responsibility to vote. But while she waits for him at the polling station, he’s passed out drunk in the cab of his parked truck. Molly then sneaks past the dozing poll workers and tries to vote in her father’s stead. Thus, in a series of events as incomprehensible as they are unconstitutional, an incomplete ballot with Bud’s name on it becomes the deciding factor in the election.
In the ensuing 10 days before he casts his vote, this apolitical dumbbell is desperately courted by both the fatuous Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) and his spineless Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper). The efforts of these two are coordinated, respectively, by Stanley Tucci, as a Rove-esque Republican operative, and Nathan Lane, as a Bob Shrum-style Democratic strategist who can’t seem to win an election. The scenes of pandering one-upmanship that follow afford some of the movie’s rare mirthful moments, including a pro-life political commercial that’s just sick enough to be funny.
But the country’s most waffling swing voter can’t be as confused as this movie’s script is. Besides the central have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too problem—how do you combine cynical satire with sappy civic idealism?—there’s a fundamental flaw in the father-daughter plot. Costner’s Bud Johnson is not a lovable rascal of a dad; he’s a boozing derelict who ignores and betrays his daughter in scene after uncomfortably painful scene. But the 12-year-old Madeline Carroll is the only person involved—including the director and screenwriter—who seems to perceive just how terrible Molly’s life is. As the grownup actors go through their purportedly comic antics, she skulks at the edge of the frame, her little face pinched in agony. It’s a reaction entirely consistent with the crappy treatment her character receives, but the unresolved question of Molly’s neglect lends the movie’s faux-uplifting ending a sour taste. A late appearance by Mare Winningham as the girl’s drug-addicted absentee mother also hits a disconcertingly realist note: Is this a political comedy or a drama about child abuse? If it’s the latter, that would at least explain the lack of laughs.