It’s been eight years since the head-to-head standoff of the 2000 presidential elections, and all we have to show for it cinematically is “Swing Vote,” a disappointingly weak comedy about an entire election coming down to one drunken loser.
That loser is Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner), who gets laid off from his job as the film begins. It’s not because of “insourcing” — one character’s term for the practice of importing cheaper Mexican labor — but because a hidden camera catches him drinking on the job and knocking over several pallets of eggs. Getting even drunker that night, Bud neglects to meet up with his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) at his polling place, where she expects him to cast a vote for president so she can write about it for a class paper.
Exasperated at his uselessness, Molly forges his signature on the voter roll (while the poll worker dozes) and prepares to cast his ballot, only to have a temporary blackout void the vote. That night, with both candidates in a dead heat for electoral votes, the whole election comes down to “Bud’s” uncast ballot.
Local TV reporter Kate (Paula Patton), with an eye toward getting out of New Mexico figures out that Bud is the voter whose choice will swing the whole election, but once she breaks the story, a nationwide frenzy erupts, with the media swarming Bud’s tiny town of Texico and both candidates swooping in to glad-hand him personally.
Republican incumbent Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) wins Bud over with his call-me-Andy style and a foreboding speech about handling the nuclear football, but Democratic contender Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) fakes his way through a conversation about bass fishing and reunites Bud’s old Willie Nelson tribute band. (Yes, folks, having learned nothing from the closing credits of “The Postman,” Costner sings again.)
The only laughs in “Swing Vote” come when the candidates try to play to Bud’s political leanings, so far as they can understand them from his occasional interviews with Kate. Suddenly the Republican is speaking up for environmentalism and gay marriage (leading to a TV spot riddled with stereotypes that the movie doesn’t realize are tired and offensive) while the Democrat suddenly starts opposing immigration and a woman’s right to choose.
Writers Joshua Michael Stern (who directed) and Jason Richman can’t quite nail a tone for the film. You can tell they were shooting for “lovable loser” with Bud but instead wound up with “functioning alcoholic” — every time poor little Molly has to drag him out of bed, cook him a meal or drive his drunken self home, all I could think of were the many, many Al-Anon meetings in this girl’s future. As for the political commentary, apart from the above-mentioned flip-flopping TV spots, it’s as toothless as a Disney Channel movie.
There’s substantial evidence that Republicans have committed election chicanery in Florida in 2000, in Ohio in 2004, and with the politically motivated hirings and firings at the Department of Justice. We currently have an election where an African-American with a Muslim name has a better-than-average shot at being elected president. Times like these call for smarter and sharper movies than “Swing Vote.”