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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Swing Vote (review)

Ain’t That America

“You’re ruining America!” poor Molly Johnson yells at her dad, loveable fuckup Bud Johnson, because he doesn’t vote and because he’s a NASCAR-lovin’, beer-swillin’, apathetic ignoramus, and ain’t he adorable in his torn jeans and greasy baseball cap and Kevin Costner’s still-hunky bod? And ya just wanna hug her, the 12-year-old idealist that Molly is, who thinks that, geez, if NASCAR-lovin’, beer-swillin’, apathetic, ignorant America just got out and voted once in a while, gosh darn it, it’d be like the good old days of apple pie and ice cream and, I dunno, Ike, maybe, or the New Deal when everyone was poor but noble and honest and cared about America and patriotism and stuff.
And you almost want to hug Swing Vote, too, it’s so cute in how it thinks that it’s not too late for all that, that one-man-one-vote really is something akin to, well, maybe nine innings of baseball on a glorious summer’s day. You almost don’t wanna tell the movie that, you know, baseball is corporate these days, a product to be marketed to us, and that, oh yeah, the apples for the pie were picked by undocumented workers who are virtual slaves, the ice cream was made with milk from downer cows, and Diebold is even now scheming ways to hack its voting machines to throw the upcoming presidential election to whomever it deems better for its quarterly earnings.

But that’s me: the kind of cynic Swing Vote would like to smack, even though I do vote, for all the good it does. I’ll grant that the flick has half enough balls to imply that it may be thinking about suggesting, with a hint of timid temerity, that part of the problem could be that only in America do we have loveable fuckups, that only here have we elevated the loveable fuckup to something of a cultural icon… But that would be insulting its intended audience. It wants to be sneaky, see, in how it gives us Costner’s Bud, who — through an implausible confluence of events that are, taken separately, ridiculously unlikely, and added together, absolutely preposterous; but this is the least of the film’s problems — is the one man upon whose vote the outcome of a presidential election rests. Election Day has come and gone, the balance in the electoral college is all but tied, and now one tiny county in New Mexico will decide which way that state’s electors will swing. And that one tiny county is hanging by a thread of just one vote: Bud’s, which was miscast. And now the New Mexico board of elections has 10 days before he needs to recast his miscast vote (there’s a lot of paperwork involved, you see). Did I say he doesn’t vote? He doesn’t. It’s complicated.

Anyway, the media now descends on Bud, and the trailer he, a single dad, shares with his daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll, a real find [she had a small role in Resident Evil: Extinction] and the only highlight of the movie… except for Costner [Mr. Brooks, The Guardian], who really is still hot, except that that’s part of the problem with the movie; he shouldn’t be). How will Bud vote? The eyes of America — and the world! — are upon him. And so are the candidates, the Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer: X-Men: The Last Stand, Teacher’s Pet) and the Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper [Sleepwalking, George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead] — yes, Dennis Hopper; yes, he inhaled) — they’re going to court Bud personally, make sure they get his vote.

That’s supposed to satire, you see, how politicians are vile windsocks who shift with the breeze of public opinion… at least as they perceive it. And it’s supposed to be satire how the media turns Bud into a celebrity. Except someone forgot to tell director Joshua Michael Stern (who cowrote the script with Jason Richman [Bad Company]) that American culture, media, and politics are beyond satire, and that, honestly, nothing that we’re offered here is any different from anything we see all the damn time whenever we turn on CNN — in fact, reality is so far beyond this that all I could think of was Lily Tomlin snarking that no matter how cynical you are, you can’t keep up. By the time the movie realizes that for itself, it’s too late to switch over to wannabe feel-good… not that it won’t try.

And then it turns into Washington Goes to Mr. Smith, as Bud realizes what his too-smart daughter — you want to yell at her to get out, go to Sweden or Mars or anywhere else — has been ranting on about all along, and begins to try to be the kind of man she’s been hoping he was. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but look: Swing Vote thinks it can cute-ify the genuine evil of the political villainy of a Karl Rove by packaging it into the faux Hollywood moustache-twirling “evil” of Stanley Tucci (Space Chimps, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl). (I don’t mean to dispage Tucci: he’s a fine actor. But he’s used as a cartoon stand-in here.) Swing Vote thinks that getting angry over voter apathy is all that’s needed to set America on the road to utopia.

I’ll say this: Joshua Michael Stern’s next movie is King Lear, which terrifies me. I’m afraid he’s gonna make the sisters all cuddly and have them make up with Dad on his deathbed. That’d be the equivalent of what he does with the tragedy that is America today in Swing Vote.


MPAA: rated PG-13 for language

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
  • PaulW

    I think the problem with any political satire movie is that it can’t be made in this type of world anymore: where the Onion fake news quickly gets repackaged by the CNN real news almost word-for-word. We’ve gone past the Primary Colors and Wag The Dog tales we see on the screens into a perverse looking-glass real-life parody world, where anything stupid and spiteful and criminal already happens in the real world and nobody owns up for the damage being done.

    There was that Robin Williams Man of the Year attempt a year or two ago, and that also was as toothless as possible and ended up pleasing nobody anyway. You just can’t do political films anymore, not in this climate of Bush/Cheney/Rove hackery. My God, we’re dealing with debates on CNN about the effectiveness of comparing Obama to Britney in McCain mudslinging ads! While the Bush’s attempts to politicize the DoJ end up on page 24 of the NY Times!!! (headthumping) How can any movie cope with the self-parodying nature of our own media?

    If this movie were made back in 1998 it might have stood a chance. Now, in 2008? You’re right: it’s practically too quaint and too nice for its own good.

  • Jigsy Q.

    I’m afraid to see this movie because of the looming spectre of Kevin Costner’s ass. It seems to pop up in every damn movie he’s in.

  • everstar

    I would only go see this movie if they had made it so the deciding vote in America had gone to anybody but a middle-aged white male. What about a middle-aged single mother? What about a married black woman? Now that’d be interesting.

  • FrankS

    1. Kevin’s ass does not make an appearance in this flick.

    2. Celebrating voter fraud seems like a poor message to prop up this movie.

    3. There are no extras during the closing credits, so if you see this flick feel free to make a sprint to the exits as soon as the screen goes black.

  • MaryAnn

    What about a middle-aged single mother? What about a married black woman?

    But middle-aged single mothers and married black women cannot be lovable fuckups! Only white men can get away with that shit. I mean, look at this film itself: Costner’s fuckup is meant to be adorable, but his wife (ex?), the kid’s mother (who appears in only one scene late in the film) is a fuckup, too, but there’s nothing adorable about her.

  • Frenk Delacroix

    Downer cows don’t give milk. They’re “down,” get it? The bad thing that comes from them is their meat.

    By the way, there are “lovable fuckups” in Europe, too. Here in Germany they’re called “Lebenskunstler” (artists at living).

  • Sara

    I saw this movie Friday night–I knew how much money Costner sunk into it (for what that’s worth)…when it does that, it usually means good things. The movie was too long and no one has mentioned that. Yeah, by far the best acting was by
    Madeline Carroll.

    There are plenty of fuck-up white males in this country that are as cute as Kevin.

    The sad thing is that many kids in this country are raising their parents and not vice versa (and this is for all classes–if anything, the wealthy seem to have a corner on the market of “not being there.” As I’ve observed.

    At the end Costner’s character pulled it together and what he said wasn’t what I expected which was kind of interesting to me. Not about voter apathy but about two things…how it had become hard (for many) to afford to live in America (government’s issues) and also how he had squandered his life up to that point. Wasn’t blaming the gov’t either and wasn’t saying the ole “pull yourself up by the bootstraps either.”

    And yeah, I felt like MaryAnn that Molly needed to get the hell out of there, but there are a lot of kids in just her situation (which didn’t make for satire as has been pointed out, but reality.)

  • Sara

    I take that back…there are NOT plenty of white fucked-up males in this country as cute as Kevin who drink as much as his character did. No, he’d have a beer gut which he was missing in the movie.
    Did have a roughed up face for Costner’s usual (I don’t care what age he is) baby-face.

    Would like to have heard more of his questions in the debate but I know that wasn’t the point. The question we heard hit where he wanted it to.

    Have to say, though, I heard so many upper-class white males (in 2000) say they thought they could have a fun chat with George W over a beer (not Scotch, etc.)but over a beer and they voted for him as much for that reason as any other class (except add on the lower taxes for the men I heard make the beer comment.)Must have brought back their good ole frat partying days. I heard it so much from the wealthy class I thought I would SCREAM!

  • MaryAnn

    There are plenty of fuck-up white males in this country that are as cute as Kevin.

    But we shouldn’t see them as cute. Not matter how much this movie wants us to.

  • JustAGuy

    I must have really misread this movie. To me this is not a political movie at all. To me this was a movie about a father and his daughter and their relationship, with the tension centering around whether or not he could improve his parenting skills to be worthy of this kid. The politics is merely the means by which this relationship story is told because that happens to be what is interesting to the kid and therefore how the father can prove himself to her.

    It was not a movie about politics any more than a Hitchcock film is about a bomber or a kidnapper or any other crime — those are merely the MacGuffin that gets the plot moving. I think politics is the MacGuffin of this movie.

    Nobody else in the universe seems to be reading it this way, however.

  • Sarah

    JustAGuy
    It is about the father/daughter relationship, truly…that first and foremost–I think you are correct on that. I mentioned in a post above about how many kids do parent their parents in this very way, unfortunately. BUT, as you point out, “Bud” rises to the occasion in this movie–in a way that he certainly didn’t have to. And that point IS being missed, I think.

  • MaryAnn

    If this is a movie about a father and his daughter, then it’s a horror movie, or a tragedy, because the kid is way too mature for her age. We should be crying at this, not laughing.

    And by the same token that it’s wrongheaded to believe that just giving lovable fuckups a chance to make the country better because, gosh darn it, they’ll be great at it if only they try, it’s wrongheaded to believe that just giving lovable fuckups a chance to be better parents because, gosh darn it, they’ll be great at it if only they try. These are far more complicated issues that demand far more complex solutions than giving everyone a gold star and a cookie.

  • Alma

    Oddly enough, I felt like the movie was more about Molly than Bud. Am I the only one who felt more moved by her story than his? I feel like she stole the entire movie from Costner. It was so refreshing and exciting for me to see a young girl portrayed the way she was; vulnerable, wise, fiercely intelligent, self-contained, completely unaware how brilliant she is…There was something so unaffected and powerful about it. I cried in about 3 of her scenes in the movie (the scene with her mom in particular). Everyone else to me was marginal, Bud included.

  • JustAGuy

    No, Alma, you are not alone in thinking that. The movie opens on Molly, and the movie closes on Molly. She is the driving force of the story. It’s her movie.

    I know kids that age about that informed and connected. Thank you, Net. There is nothing weird about Molly, if maybe just exaggerated a bit for story purposes.

    There is nothing about the ending that makes you think the dad will suddenly be a great person. He will continue to make mistakes and plenty of them. But there is something about him that the daughter loves, and it’s in him because he does care. He will try to improve and in so doing will prove to be a slightly better person and father. It’s not ideal for Molly, but it will be better. There are some complex emotions going on in this movie. Seeing Molly’s tears as she gives her speech toward the end in class tells you a lot about how she cares for her dad. He has good qualities that have been beaten down by his life, but through his daughter he might improve enough to be a decent enough person again.

  • Sara

    MaryAnn,
    You can cry for the kid, as there are many many like her in this country (world.)For survival purposes they will either be way too mature for their age or they’ll be in trouble a lot. Seems it tends to be one or the other.
    So many times I’ve seen a kid brought in for treatment and the kid is not the one with the real problem…it’s the parents (or parent)…yeah, Molly is headed for big problems if one of her parents doesn’t turn around. And have you not known kids who later in college got scholarships because a guidance counselor (one of the competent ones) called the student aside and helped her or him get all the forms filled out, apply for scholarships, etc….yet the student has NO ONE in the family who has ever gone to college and some who have not ever finished high school? It happens quite often. With Molly, the fact that the female television reporter has taken an interest in her is huge. The fact that Bud rose to the occasion for Molly basically is also huge and shows something about him that I’ve seen happen in reality.
    However, if you want tragedy, think of all the boys who are in families like this who are 10 and 11 who are sitting through The Dark Knight until they memorize all the lines. Talk about chilling. Again, that PG13 on that movie was a big mistake for a hell of a lot of kids.
    I agree, also, that in Swing Vote, we do have a female actor who outshines everyone…and that was one thing I mentioned to watch for on the thread, What Hollywood Does To Women. Molly’s not a “woman” but she’s forced to take on that role. If she stays in acting, who knows how her career will progress?

  • Sara

    The 10 and 11 year old boys (those who have parents similar to Molly’s) who are sitting through multiple PG13 showings of The Dark Knight are not necessarily identifying with Batman either.
    (not saying all the boys–or girls–in Molly’s situation are going to that movie but most probably will.)And they’ll get in. They’ll think some of the stuff the Joker is doing is so incredibly cool. Batman is also a rich and privileged guy and they won’t identify with that as much. If it were rated R they would have difficulty getting in. Sure could still see it on DVD but not the same effect–still not a kid’s movie.
    So, hey, I’m happy to see a movie with a kid like Molly in it because kids like this truly exist and they often have more impact on their parents than we often realize (I’d say this for all socio-economic classes, actually.)
    I’d prefer a 12 year old see Swing Vote than TDK…but America is giving the signals to kids that the one to see is not the one with the smart girl in it.

  • MaryAnn

    I’d prefer a 12-year-old to see *Kit Kittredge,* not this junk.

  • Sara

    MA,
    I can understand why you’d rather see Kit Kittredge. I agree. But I’d much prefer to see Molly in Swing Vote than see any of The Dark Knight. I really disliked that movie. I thought Molly’s acting was superior to any acting in TDK. Even Ledger’s. My opinion.

  • Apparently Swing Vote is based on a not quite original idea:

    http://blogs.nypost.com/movies/archives/2008/07/yes_its_true_ke.html#comments

    That aside, I must admit that I always thought that MaryAnn has a soft spot for lovable fuckups. At least that’s the impression I got from her reviews of Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, Mystery Men, etc.

    My bad.

  • MaryAnn

    Everything is about the tone and the presentation. There’s nothing than cannot be done well and convincingly in a movie. It’s all in how you do it.

  • Accounting Ninja

    Okay, I’m going to throw this out there. Keep in mind I haven’t seen Swing Vote.

    Characters like Molly don’t sit right with me. Entirely too mature and pure and level-headed considering where she came from, she is entirely a Hollywood fabrication.
    In reality, a child of a fuckup (no loveable) usually has behavioral problems, low self esteem and a host of other issues. Mollies just don’t exist in real life.

    Then there’s the sexism of it: Molly, a woman, is the mature voice of reason for the wayward man. She is his child, and not say, a grown love interest, because children are “pure” (especially little girls) and children are non-threatening (especially little girls). The same quips Molly fires at her Dad may sound “nagging or bitchy” coming from a grown woman. But of course, only a female can redeem the wayward male (perpetuating the belief that if a woman is just good and oh-so-precious enough, even the most fuckup-iest or fuckups will change his ways).

  • MaryAnn

    You’re right about all this, Ninja. Molly doesn’t really exist, not as anything healthy or worth emulating. And yes, it’s digusting that women are so often cast as the redeemer, and hardly ever the one needing redemption. In fact, in the one scene here in which we meet Molly’s mother, we can see that she clearly needs a lot more help that her ex-husband, but of course, even in the terrible calculus of a movie like this, there’s no conception of Molly redeeming her mother. That simply cannot happen. The mother failed in her job of redeeming the husband, and now she’s being punished for that, while the job fails to the daughter.

  • Accounting Ninja

    But, don’t you know, Mary Ann?? A woman in need of redemption is just a BAD WIFE AND MOTHER! Boo-hiss.

    ;P

    lol, don’t even get me started about the expectations put on mothers by American culture.

  • Sara

    I have seen kids like Molly who end up doing OK or better and they get out of the family environment (as Molly could via the journalist possibly).
    Also, MaryAnn, A.Ninja hasn’t seen the movie, remember (I’m saying this cause I got jumped all over from making comments re: The Dark Knight before I saw it)…Molly isn’t so mature as perhaps you are making her out to be. She cries a lot during the movie. She WANTS to be in school (this isn’t so odd.) She’s smart. Effed up people can have smart kids. It happens. Anyway, one thing I’m in complete agreement: young girls are not a threat in the way grown women are. Yes, we know that. Clearly.
    On the otherhand, Bud didn’t have to listen to his daughter at all. And he did. That happens sometimes, too. The daughter is often listened to over the mother. And I’ll say it cause it’s true…a mother will often listen to her son and ignore what her husband says.
    I found Molly to be believable mostly because I’ve known some girls like her.

  • Accounting Ninja

    Yes, I haven’t seen it. I was just venting about the concept for characters like Molly. I don’t know to what degree Bud was an ass, or just how “mature and pure” Molly was portrayed to be.

    As far as kids turning out okay, I mean, sure, none of us had a perfect childhood, and some had horrific and neglectful ones, and despite that, the adult children when on to be successful. My complaint was, that in Hollywood, you see a lot of dynamics like Molly and Bud. And it just bugs me. Kids aren’t mini-adults.

    And, just for the record (not saying it never happens) I think a family where parents listen to the kids over their spouses “often” are dysfunctional.

  • Sara

    I agree. It seems that kids aren’t allowed to be kids (or can’t because of their circumstances–they have to grow up too fast) OR the other extreme is that they are babied and allowed this extended adolescence with little responsibility. Both are about as bad as the other.
    I do think it’s not uncommon (but unhealthy) for kids to carry the parental angst in them (and yeah, sometimes act-out, sometimes run away, sometimes bury themselves in school.)
    I have a friend who lived in a family similar to the one described in the movie, only she’s super smart–it was because of a guidance counselor that she applied to college (no one in her family had finished high school.) She got a scholarship to a top-rate university and has excelled. She doesn’t see much of her family because she wants to stay out of the mess. She also went to therapy on her own in college for a couple of years. I’ve known others like this so it can happen. That’s what I meant.
    In this movie, Molly is competent in many ways, but she cries a whole lot, you can see the pent-up anger. She’s not this perfectly controlled little mini-adult. She does run away in one part…to her mother’s. I thought she did a great job of acting. And in the movie, Bud did rise to the occasion because of Molly mostly (not an uncommon thing for some parents to do.)Seen that happen, too.

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