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Swing and miss

Movies | Lazy plot devices keep new Kevin Costner film from reaching its potential

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

Perhaps we can give Hollywood credit for at least trying to produce an ideologically neutral comedy about presidential politics. The considerably left-of-center baseline most of the industry starts from doesn't allow them to succeed, but Disney's effort with Swing Vote, a PG-13 comedy with an inexplicable amount of offensive language, feels sincere.

Swing Vote's premise stands as an answer to those who argue that individual votes don't count for much. In a heated race that brings to mind Broward County and hanging chads, the entire presidential election comes down to the vote of good ol' boy Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) from the small town of Texico, N.M. A borderline-alcoholic factory worker, Bud has little understanding of the issues and even less interest in them. Thus the two candidates are quickly reduced to appealing to Bud's love of NASCAR, country music, and fishing to win his vote.

As in films like Bull Durham and Tin Cup, Costner is at his best playing loveable loser Bud. He's sloppy, he's moronic, and he represents every negative stereotype lobbed at Americans, yet it's impossible to dislike him. Similarly, though Kelsey Grammar and Dennis Hopper have to endure some ridiculous characterizations of their two candidates (has any president really measured the success of his administration by the whiteness of his teeth?), they manage to lend their characters some dignity. Of course, casting Grammar and Hopper, two of entertainment's few self-professed Republicans, isn't enough to overcome the bad feelings Swing Vote is sure to engender amongst their fellow party members.

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Though it doesn't seem like the movie was intentionally crafted to imply it, conservative viewers are still likely to find themselves annoyed that its default position is that they're on the wrong side of the issues. Seconds after giving a speech in which he acknowledges that a person's level of prosperity in the United States is usually directly proportional to the amount of effort he puts into it and responsibility he assumes, Costner's character wonders why so many families can't "get by" in the richest country in the world. He doesn't define what "get by" means (does it mean having cable, cell phones, more than one car? Or does it mean food, clothing, and electricity?). But the assumption that goes unchallenged is that they would be able to get by if only the government would offer more programs to assist them. And while Hopper's Democrat is shown to be in unfamiliar territory when he flip-flops in an attempt to secure Bud's vote, when Grammar's Republican considers resorting to bribes, his aide assures him that they are only doing "what we always do."

But what keeps Swing Vote from being good isn't politics, it's lazy plot devices. Once again, in lieu of true character development, we are given the conceit of the all-wise child precociously pushing her parent to change for the better. Perhaps it's fitting that the political conscience of the film is Bud's 12-year-old daughter given that its presentation of the issues is as intellectually shallow as conservatives accuse liberals of being, but it leeches all the comedy out of an inherently funny setup.

A few moments approach incisive satire (ads that each presidential hopeful crafts to appeal directly to Bud give new meaning to the term special interest), but many others (like a campy pro-life commercial that shows children vanishing from a playground in puffs of smoke) are simply in bad taste. In between, rather than giving us more of the element that's working-Costner's everyman choosing the free world's leader for all the wrong reasons-the producers drown us in sentimentality that isn't particularly moving and certainly isn't amusing.

Megan Basham
Megan Basham

Megan, a regular correspondent for WORLD News Group, is a writer and film critic living in Memphis, Tenn.. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.

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