Swing Vote

When Swing Vote was shown in theaters in the heat of the 2008 election, it was Hollywood’s version of Dennis Kucinich; full of old ideas and not very popular with anyone. Now with a Presidential Inauguration just around the corner, Kevin Costner’s political comedy arrives on DVD. With the close votes in the 2000 Presidential election and, more recently, the 2008 Minnesota Senate contest, the idea of an election coming down to one vote doesn’t seem completely far fetched. Unfortunately, Swing Vote writers Jason Richman and Joshua Michael Stern waste the premise on a movie that, despite a strong cast, is rife with meager humor and limp warmed-over political commentary.

Kevin Costner plays Bud Johnson, a resident of Texico, New Mexico. Bud is supposed to, I guess, represent an “Everyman.” Instead, he’s sort of an “EveryAlcoholSoakedDoofus.” He works at an egg factory but manages to lose that job for being a lazy drunk. He lives in a trailer with his precocious 12-year old daughter, Molly (newcomer Madeline Carroll, who doesn’t stink.) Molly is politically aware and wants her idiot Dad to do his civic duty and vote in the Presidential election. Due to a voting machine error, that vote doesn’t get counted.

It turns out that the close election comes down to New Mexico’s electoral votes and the state's popular vote is tied. Bud’s vote was, apparently, the only one in question, so his vote will break the tie in the state and decide the next President. This is all decided hours after the polls close without the pesky recounts and legal action that I assumed was required. Stupid me. Bud is given 10 days to recast his ballot. Why 10 days? So the movie can exist, of course! If he simply voted again that night when the error was discovered, we couldn’t have all the wackiness and sharp political satire that follows.

With the lag between the realization that now no votes count but Bud’s and the actual time he will cast his ballot, the Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) and the Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper) fly to New Mexico to win Bud over. This is where we get what passes for stunning political insight by Richman and Stern. Here, it is, are you ready? The candidates will say and do anything to get elected! I never realized that before watching this movie and it’s certainly not something that almost everyone over the age of 14 already knows. The movie treats it like comic gold as the candidates and their aides (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane) whip back and forth agreeing to anything they think Bud wants including the Democrat speaking against abortion and the Republican pushing gay marriage.

The core of the movie is Bud’s relationship with Molly and her disgust at his milking his 15 minutes of fame without trying to really make a decision about who he wants to vote for. It’s family therapy and reconciliation via civic duty. The movie heads towards The Big Realization followed by The Big Study Session (complete with montage) and then The Big Speech as Bud tries to do the right thing. Everything is so obvious that you can guess how things will wrap up within the first 20 minutes. The movie would have worked better as an after-school special, catering to kids who might actually be surprised by the craven actions of the politicians and inspired by Bud’s actions of the end of the movie. Too bad there is so much foul language that parents will likely avoid including their kids in watching this if they decided to toss it in the DVD player.

The cast is not bad, it’s just that the heavy handed and obvious script doesn’t give them much to work with. There are splashes of real humor, especially in the political ads. Maybe the screenwriters should make commercials instead of movies. Carroll is actually a real find and will probably be the next Dakota Fanning. Costner acquits himself well but starts out as a pretty frustrating and unlikeable guy, making him hard to root for in the long haul. He also uses the movie as a platform to introduce his singing career. Costner’s real life group performs a song, complete with Costner’s awful vocals, smack dab in the middle of the film.

Political comedy isn’t the easiest of formats, but this one falls well short. It lacks depth and subtlety, which wouldn’t matter if it were hilarious. It’s not, though, more like mildly amusing in parts. Hard core Costner fans and those who like to see the political process as the subject of fish in a barrel barbs may get a little out of this, everyone else should steer clear. Swing Vote comes onto DVD with a pretty standard collection of extras. The lack of interest in the theatrical release combined with the basic mediocre comedy set-up of the movie limits the number of featurettes and special items you’d expect to find. The basic widescreen and Dolby 5.1 technical specifications are professional and there is nothing negative about the picture or sound.

Director/co-writer Joshua Michael Stern and co-writer Jason Richman provide a commentary. They do a decent job and you can’t blame them for trying to convince us (and maybe themselves) that this is actually a pretty good movie. They aren’t dry and their interest in the material keeps the pace moving. They seem inordinately interested in telling us if material that is up on screen was “not changed through the whole process” but that’s not so interesting to me. It falls in the middle of audio commentaries and while it isn’t worth watching the whole movie again just to hear it, it’s certainly not a chore to listen to.

The two main extras, after the commentary, are the deleted scenes and a making-of featurette. The making-of, called “Inside the Campaign: The Politics of Production,” is about 12 minutes long and as common as they come: interviews with all the key players who extol the virtues of the movie and explain the plot. Since you’ve watched the movie and know the plot, it doesn’t do much, but it was probably shown before the theatrical version was released on HBO or whatever.

The deleted scenes last about 10 minutes. There are four scenes, including one that is more of an extended scene between Costner and Paula Patton in the bowling alley and another scene between the two. There is also a scene showing a discussion between Tucci and Lane. It’s more of the heavy handed political obviousness with the characters deciding near the end of the movie that they will try to run an election on “issues”, like it’s a big revelation. These scenes can be played with a commentary by Richman and Stern. It’s not like anything is comic or acting gem hidden in the cut out bin, so it’s easily skippable unless you consider Swing Vote a five-star movie and want more, more, more.

The final extra is another attempt by producer Costner to get his music career jumpstarted. His band appears in a video for a song called “What About You?” They sound a little better here than they do on the song Costner sings in the movie, but it’s still generic country rock. If it wasn’t Costner singing, it wouldn’t be on the DVD and Costner doesn’t sing well enough to justify it. If it seems like I’m going out of my way to not give the name of Costner’s band and deny him a little free publicity, it’s because I am.

This is a mediocre movie with a mediocre DVD release. Costner’s career, which has always seemed like a hit and miss proposition, adds another entry to the miss column.