After a bizarre technical botch, the result of the Presidential election is left hanging on a single vote: that of an unemployed and indifferent bozo named Bud (Costner).
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In this Superbad age of comedy, ruled by Judd Apatow’s profane sprawl of zeitgeist-blurting slackers flunking their relationships in a deviant fusion of Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino, Swing Vote feels like an antique. It’s broad and easygoing, more in tune with Frank Capra’s swoony Americana of decent souls fighting the glum machinations of the system, or Ealing’s folksy farces. You also get unfashionable Kevin Costner as slack as a sack, a goatee like a Dairy Lea lodged beneath his grin, portraying the dumb lug in whose hands has landed the fate of the Western World. Is that why it feels so refreshing? It’s just so out of kilter.
Co-writer/director Joshua Michael Stern’s parable is political satire at its most laid-back, reducing the entire American electorate to one slovenly single-father living out of a trailer in Texico, New Mexico, happier clinking beers with his addled buddies than getting wise to politics. He’s America’s plump apathy, about to get a hard shake. With the help of his sparky daughter (Carroll, as preternaturally beyond-her-years as a Leon-era Natalie Portman), whose well-intentioned scheming landed him in this predicament, Bud slouches towards his awakening to a reasoned choice.
That the two candidates, cast effectively against the grain in the greying guises of Kelsey Grammer as the Republican President seeking re-election and Dennis Hopper as the eager Democrat, both try to wheedle his affections hardly helps matters. The script takes a cynical jab at how political ideals get crushed in the clamour for votes (or, in this case, vote), as the two parties contrive potty TV ads skewed to Bud’s misinterpreted ramblings on abortion, immigration and gay marriage - the entanglements of terrorism are safely sidestepped. Seasoned sleazoids Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane make easy work of opposing campaign managers gleefully plotting the most grab-bag election in history.
Costner, so naturally likable, has a rare willingness to undo his good looks. Knock-kneed and lumpy-looking, blithely belching and fingering his crotch, Bud is Crash Davis lobotomised into Homer Simpson. Even if you don’t quite buy him as such an ignoramus, he’s a charmingly uncouth stooge for the uptight politicos. Indeed, the father-daughter relationship with Carroll, including a joltingly joke-free cameo from Mare Winningham as the pill-tilted mother unable to cope, possesses a real-life poignancy. You don’t believe this could ever happen, but you believe these are real people - Grammer’s gloating Republican more a distant cousin of ghoulish Dubya.
Although it saunters on a little long, Stern gives Swing Vote the warm, moral glow of a fable; he creates a rustic America that never oversteps into parody, but has the unkempt charm of a blue-collar Bedford Falls. It may be contrived (as was Capra), but there’s purpose to the whimsy. Of course it is sentimental (as was Capra), and how you take the syrup spread of the final act may dictate how you swallow the film. It’s a soft, naïve, optimistic note to go home on, but after the glower of summer’s thudding blockbusters, there’s comfort in that.
This light satire is unlikely to influence the forthcoming election, but Costner’s in fine fettle.
Reviewed by Ian Nathan