Casting a 'Vote' for satire

Review: B-

August 01, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun movie critic

Kevin Costner can do certain kinds of American confusion better than anyone else. He's nonpareil at playing the mental fog that isn't quite a hangover, or the comfort a modest man can take in a homey, familiar mess.

As Bud Johnson, the single father and sometime egg-factory worker in the mild political comedy-drama Swing Vote, he plays a middle-aged slacker so unsentimentally, and with such ease and conviction, that he supplies the movie with a comic engine that keeps running when the script wheezes and splutters.

With his smart, responsible daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), a fifth-grader, Bud occupies a trailer in Texico, N.M., but he really lives in the town of Amiable Stupor in the state of Drunken Haze. Although he promises Molly he'll do his civic duty and cast a vote for president, he never shows up at the polling place.

Angry and frustrated, she sashays past complacent poll-workers to take her dad's place in the voting both. Just when she's about to make her choice, one worker accidentally pulls the plug on her machine. State authorities think Bud placed a ballot that didn't register - and New Mexico is locked in a tie, with the national race frozen at 267 to 266. His is the swing vote.

The candidates and the media invade Texico; Bud basks in the attention. The filmmakers have said they tried to create a scenario that put Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in reverse. With this set-up, they'd have better schooled themselves on classic Preston Sturges farces like Hail the Conquering Hero! This movie needed to be wilder in its satiric sallies, more daring in its treatment of the power of "the common man."

Joshua Michael Stern, who directed and co-wrote the script with Jason Richman, sketches the mercurial shifts in mood of the confident, wistful Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) and his ruthless campaign manager (Stanley Tucci), and the insecure Democratic contender (Dennis Hopper) and his rueful campaign manager (Nathan Lane).

As they train their massive forces on Bud, a sitting target, the movie parodies the anything-to-win philosophy that goes with their quest to gain his vote. Parsing Bud's halting public statements for clues to his positions, the Democrat suddenly turns "pro-life" and the Republican advocates for gay rights.

Too bad the political burlesques, while accurate and good-hearted, are also bland; they tell you what you already know. And the personal story of Bud trying to grow up before his daughter does borders on earnest melodrama.

Still, Costner does something difficult: In the middle of a tepid comic whirlpool, he finds the humorous aspect of inertia. In Bud, he creates a man who's both befuddled and on top of things. His saving grace is that he never tries to be anyone other than the humble fellow that he is. He reacts to his new proximity to Very Important People like a kid; he knows he's lucky to grab the attention of his musical idol, Willie Nelson, or to have Richard Petty knock on his trailer door, or to take a private tour of Air Force One.

Even if you wish it went farther, what's truly funny about the movie is how far Bud takes his celebrity ride and how shrewdly and honestly Costner fills in the contours of his character. You smile when he voices non sequiturs; you laugh out loud when he learns enough to keep his mouth shut. It's unfortunate that the filmmakers don't milk Bud's version of Indecision 2008 for maximum impact.

Still, Costner has the candor and wit to create a portrait of "the guy you want to have a beer with" - and to say that's not the guy you want to have as president. Swing Vote has the guts to say that unless he cleans up his act, it's not even the guy you want voting for a president.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

ONLINE

Watch a preview of Swing Vote at baltimoresun.com/swing

Swing Vote

(Walt Disney Pictures) Starring Kevin Costner, Madeline Carroll, Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper. Directed by Joshua Michael Stern. Rated PG-13 for language. Time 110 minutes.

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