Swing Vote (review)

Ain’t That America

“You’re ruining America!” poor Molly Johnson yells at her dad, lovable 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 lovable fuckups, that only here have we elevated the lovable 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 disparage 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.

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