Tuesday, 28 May 2024

Comical, improbable 'Swing Vote' focuses more on family

SWING VOTE (Rated PG-13)


If anything, Kevin Costner, as the star and co-producer, picked the right time for a comedy about politics where the future of the nation hangs in the balance, based on the vote of one guy intellectually unqualified to cast a vote in any election, let alone that for our nation’s next president.


“Swing Vote,” resurrecting the spirit of Frank Capra, works up a mild satire of our electoral system, where an ordinary man is called upon to display the kind of wisdom and thoughtfulness he has never possessed in his life.


Thankfully, the politics is fictional, even though the battle for the presidency comes down to a tight match between Republican incumbent President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper).


Seeking a relatively evenhanded approach to political persuasions, both candidates are solid if unremarkable as candidates. All the nasty stuff is left to their overheated campaign managers, both of whom are the epitome of sharks in search of the next political kill.


On the Democratic side, it’s Art Crumb (Nathan Lane), an operative desperate to win at all costs since his track record has been a losing one. Republican Martin Fox (Stanley Tucci) is the caricature of a slick campaign manager.


In the dust-blown small town of Texico, New Mexico, Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is an apathetic, beer-slinging, lovable loser coasting through life. Unreliable and incompetent, Bud can’t even hang on to his miserable job on the assembly line at the egg factory.


The one bright spot in his life is his precocious, overachieving 12-year-old daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll, stealing every scene in the movie). Surprisingly civic-minded, Molly pesters her indifferent father to vote in the presidential election. Of course, he promises her to show up at the polling place at the end of the day.


Leaving the local tavern that evening, Bud passes out in his truck, and the disheartened Molly takes it upon herself to attempt to vote in his place. A strange set of circumstances causes the voting machine to freeze before Bud’s vote is counted. Ordinarily, this would matter little, but the presidential election comes down to a dead heat, where New Mexico’s five electoral votes will make the difference.


Even more extraordinary is that the results in New Mexico are deadlocked in a very improbable tie. This causes election officials to determine that Bud’s vote must be recast in order to break the logjam.


The interesting thing about New Mexico is that in 2000 Al Gore beat George W. Bush by a scant 366 votes for the five electoral votes, the closest tally of any state. So maybe this deadlock in “Swing Vote” is not so far off the mark.


In any case, Bud’s identity as the deciding voter is soon compromised. One of the funniest things is when the media descends on the small town in droves, taking up a vigil outside Bud’s trailer park home and yelling questions at him as if he were Tom Cruise on the red carpet at a movie premiere.


Since Bud has 10 days in which to cast his ballot, the candidates, political advocacy groups and the media hordes blanket the New Mexico town in a flurry of activity. Some of the funny political stuff is when the candidates start pitching messages at Bud in attempt to curry favor, even if it means tossing aside core principles.


For all of the media frenzy and political posturing, “Swing Vote” really comes down to the shaky relationship between Bud and Molly, and everything else is just wrapped into a number of subplots.


More than anything, the disillusioned Molly wants her father to become a responsible citizen and participant in civic affairs. Of course, she loves him dearly, in spite of his many faults, and wants to protect him from the predatory schemers.


Madeline Carroll’s Molly is something like Tatum O’Neal’s precocious little girl in “Paper Moon,” though not a cynical con artist. Molly’s cynicism is reserved for those who would take advantage of her father, including local TV reporter Kate Madison (Paula Patton), who’s just too eager to score a big-time network news job.


“Swing Vote” alternately mocks the political system and seeks to impart the significance of a single vote, even if the decision is in the hands of a complete nincompoop. Humor is mined from the political pandering of the candidates and the bluster and bravado of blowhard pundits (with real-life ones like Chris Matthews and James Carville pontificating on the fictional election). But the best moments of “Swing Vote” are between Molly and Bud, the way it should be.


DVD RELEASE UPDATE


I was thinking of tacking on a new DVD release with a political theme. “The Executioner’s Song: Director’s Cut,” shining a spotlight on the revival of capital punishment in the late 1970s may be the best, if only, bet.


Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Norman Mailer, “The Executioner’s Song” stars Tommy Lee Jones in an Emmy Award-winning performance as the first person in the United Sates to be executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.


It’s based on the real-life story of Gary Gilmore, beginning with his release from prison, soon after which he embarked on a crime spree resulting in two murders.


After a widely publicized trial in which he was sentenced to death, Gilmore refused all appeals and was executed in 1977 by a firing squad.


Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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