Graced with a gently cynical spirit and more brains than its average-Joe protagonist, “Swing Vote” applies a pleasing Frank Capra-esque glaze to the fanciful story of a blue-collar American whose vote ends up being the only one that counts. Result may not be the sharpest slice of political theater imaginable, but pic’s comic smarts and affecting daddy-daughter drama provide a sturdy platform for its heartfelt advocacy of informed voting and responsible citizenship. Broad commercial potential and impeccable election-season timing aside, Disney’s oddly misleading ad campaign won’t help this ingratiating, old-fashioned, decidedly nonpartisan entertainment earn the B.O. ballots it deserves.
From its opening shots of America’s heartland, handsomely photographed by Shane Hurlbut and accompanied by the downright patriotic strains of John Debney’s score, “Swing Vote” feels like a throwback to a more innocent era (well, that or a Stater Bros. commercial). Fortunately, scribe-helmer Joshua Michael Stern (“Neverwas”) and co-writer Jason Richman have supplied their cheerily implausible premise with almost enough real-world interest — issues touched upon include the environment, abortion and gay marriage, but not terrorism — to mirror our more troubled times.
An idealistic, intelligent 12-year-old, Molly (Madeline Carroll) is used to being disappointed by her irresponsible, heavy-drinking single father, Bud (Kevin Costner). On the morning of the presidential election, Molly urges her dad not to forget to vote, promising to meet him later at the polling place in their tiny hometown of Texico, N.M.
Naturally, Bud misses their meeting, and Molly impulsively decides to cast his vote for him. Through a series of events that don’t seem all that hard to swallow, given recent real-life polling mishaps, the machine registers that “Bud” voted, but not whom he voted for. And when the insanely tight race ends up coming down to New Mexico’s five electoral votes, Bud’s lowly ballot — which he is allowed to recast in 10 days — is fated to determine the next commander in chief.
Given that this loopy premise could have been taken in any number of directions, Richman and Stern have done an admirable job of exploring the many possibilities within the simplified context of a family film — albeit one with enough salty language and grown-up discourse to warrant a PG-13 rating.
Pic spreads its satirical wings as voracious reporters and political-interest groups descend on Bud and Molly’s trailer home, while the anxious candidates — Republican incumbent Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) — arrive in Texico to personally woo the undecided voter.
Amid the winings and dinings and mountains of swag, the script earns its biggest laughs with a series of hilariously barbed, Bud-skewed campaign ads that illustrate how readily some politicos will abandon their party beliefs to win an election. Generous fake coverage by the likes of Larry King, Tucker Carlson and Mary Hart (among the many celebrities, pundits and personalities making cameos here) adds to the in-joke verisimilitude.
As Molly grows increasingly disillusioned with politics and disappointed that her dad is “a dumbass” (in the words of Bill Maher), the pic, taking its cue from such Capra classics as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Meet John Doe,” paves the way for Bud’s redemption — and, by extension, the mobilization of the voting audience. While it’s a letdown that “Swing Vote” turns out to have no more substantial political ideas than either of its vanilla candidates, it’s hard not to be stirred by how earnestly the film implores viewers to educate themselves and exercise their rights, or by how boldly it casts its hero as a stand-in for unsophisticated, apathetic schmoes everywhere.
Playing a guy who’s irascible, unshaven, perpetually hung over and prone to swearing in his daughter’s presence, Costner wins over the viewer, paradoxically, with his utter indifference to whether the viewer likes him or not. Thesp’s vanity-free turn strikes engaging sparks with the disarmingly self-possessed Carroll, who’s cute as a button but almost too precocious for this world.
While the presidential candidates are interestingly cast against type (Hopper, who gleefully parodied George W. Bush in George Romero’s “Land of the Dead,” just seems more GOP than the debonair Grammer), their campaign strategists, though played with cutthroat wit by Nathan Lane and Stanley Tucci, aren’t given much to do. Paula Patton is appealing as an ambitious TV reporter, with a typically boisterous George Lopez as her boss.
Filmed near Albuquerque, N.M., the expertly mounted production evokes an effortless small-town feel, balanced by occasional glimpses of the Oval Office or Air Force One. Crowded country-western soundtrack includes two songs by Costner’s band, Modern West.