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Swing Vote, a Disney summer comedy starring an adorable 12-year-old girl, is rated PG-13. Not because of its subject matter, which mostly consists of family values and civic duty, but because of a decision to let Kevin Costner curse his way through the whole thing, presumably to make his role as a drunk, neglectful, obnoxious blue-collar father more “realistic.”
This boneheaded screenwriting decision is only one of many in Swing Vote, a movie that tries to be a political satire and family drama but fails on both counts. Families who would otherwise flock to this middling comedy will be barred by the PG-13 rating, and those expecting political intrigue based on the trailers will be disappointed entirely. Despite a handful of good performances and some brief glimpses at real life in rural America, Swing Vote is the broadest, most meaningless kind of mainstream comedy.
The biggest problem is probably Costner in the main role, playing Bud, a New Mexico factory worker intended to be a gruff-but-charming type but coming off as entirely unlikable and irredeemable. Relying on his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll, appealing and talented) to wake him, cook for him and even drive his car, Bud drinks on the job and knows nothing about his daughter’s life. Civic-minded Molly asks Bud to meet her at the polling place on Election Day, but when Bud predictably passes out in the car instead, Molly sneaks into a booth herself and pulls the lever.
Thanks to an electrical snafu, the machine never records “Bud’s” vote, and because of a not-so-implausible tie in the Electoral College, the Presidential election boils down to his vote. Bud must wait 10 days before he can recast it, and in the meantime the entire political world descends upon his small town. Primary among the vultures are the candidates themselves, Republican President Boone (an oddly cast Kelsey Grammer) and Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), both of whom woo Bud with everything from a ride in Kyle Petty’s racecar to margaritas on the tarmac beside Air Force One.
The media hounds Bud about his political views when it’s clear he doesn’t really have any, but when local reporter Kate Madison (Paula Patton) gets him to mumble a few positions, the politicians to frantically switch positions in order to appeal to him. The Republican promotes land conservation and the Democrat speaks up against abortion, both at the encouragement of their snakelike political advisers (Nathan Lane and Stanley Tucci, restrained and practically interchangeable). There’s a snarky genius in showing political flip-flops laid bare when trying to appeal to one specific voter, and the campaign ads produced by the two candidates are some of the funniest moments of the movie.
All of the sly political jabs, though, are secondary to the family plot, in which Bud spends nearly the entire film recognizing his duty to his daughter and his country but ignoring both. Though he’s supposed to be a struggling single dad, Bud is essentially a flat character, self-absorbed and unwilling to make life changes until the plot artificially does it for him. Same goes for Kate, a chipper reporter whose sole moment of fallibility can be seen a mile away. The single, heartbreaking exception is Mare Winningham in a brief scene as Molly’s mom; the subplot is worthless to the overall story, but it’s one of the few moments of truth in an overly manufactured film.
The film contains bits of Capra-esque, everyman fantasy and bits of gritty and realistic rural drama, but the balance never works out to create a coherent or compelling story. It’s good to see Costner doing comedy again, but he’ll need a better vehicle before he stages a real comeback.