What if Larry the Cable Guy chose the next president? That’s basically the premise of “Swing Vote,” the new Kevin Costner starrer satirizing presidential elections.
Costner plays Bud Johnson, a ne’er-do-well in Texico, New Mexico. He loves beer, fishin’, racin’ and Willie Nelson. He also loves his 12-year-old daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll in a promising debut), but you wouldn’t know it by his behavior. She’s the real adult in the family, and the lone beacon in Bud’s otherwise ho-hum existence.
But Bud’s days working at the egg factory end on Election Day. That’s when Molly inadvertently triggers a chain of events that can change everyone’s world: Her father will cast the deciding vote in the presidential election between incumbent Republican Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper).
It’s Florida 2000 all over again, but this time it’s “one man, one vote.” Media descend on Texico and track Bud’s every twitch. In perhaps the film’s most hilarious moment, the media set up shop outside Bud’s trailer and surprise him in the middle of the night.
Courting ensues as both sides try to woo Bud with everything from racecar rides with Richard Petty to a spray-cheese buffet. And every time Bud says anything that could be construed as having an opinion on a hot-button issue (gay marriage, immigration, environment, abortion), the respective campaigns waste no time producing ads catering to their new base of one: Bud.
Director and co-writer Joshua Michael Stern, mostly with small-screen credits to date, delivers a provocative movie. It’s the perfect “what if” script for 2008, though written two years ago and shot last year in New Mexico—even as the state’s governor, Bill Richardson, was prepping his run for president.
Cameos abound: James Carville, Campbell Brown, Larry King, Chris Matthews, Arianna Huffington and Bill Maher, who delivers one of the narrative’s cruel punch lines. There’s much here to ponder: pandering with celebrities, the fickleness of media, the apathy of a citizenry, the importance of family.
“Swing Vote” comes up a few votes short in key states: Grammer and Hopper are underutilized, a local reporter angle is fuzzy in concept and execution, and some of the satire is just plain uncomfortable, even for satire (especially a scene in which Democrat Greenleaf, doing what he thinks will appeal to Bud, shoots a commercial about Mexicans crossing the border).
But the film does build to a final speech by Bud, and his reflections in that moment are worth hearing.
All this makes “Swing Vote” bring to mind several other movies. It’s not as sweet as “Dave” and not as meticulous as “Citizen Ruth.” It’s better than another recent satire, “Thank You for Smoking,” perhaps because this is a comedy for Costner, whose funny bone isn’t broken.
“Swing Vote” also lands squarely in Costner’s body of work about America the Beautiful. When you rack his films—e.g., “The Untouchables,” “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Thirteen Days”—it’s perhaps not a stretch to suggest that no other working actor’s films have reflected historical and present-day America so accessibly, plainly and engagingly as Costner’s.
For all the flap over his real or perceived film failures (e.g. “The Postman”), future generations will find in his films a genuine American article. For that reason, it’s easy to see why Costner was drawn to Bud.
As Big Russ, the late Tim Russert’s father, said of America: “What a country!”
Surely Costner agrees.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language. Reviewer’s Note: There’s some bad language from Bud at the beginning, but he curtails that a bit after a cautionary word from, yes, his daughter.
Director: Joshua Michael Stern
Writers: Jason Richman & Joshua Michael Stern
Cast: Bud Johnson: Kevin Costner; President Andrew Boone: Kelsey Grammer; Donald Greenleaf: Dennis Hopper; Art Crumb: Nathan Lane; Martin Fox: Stanley Tucci; John Sweeney: George Lopez; Walter: Judge Reinhold; Molly Johnson: Madeline Carroll.
The movie’s official Web site is here.