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Swing Vote

(2008) * Pg-13
121 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Joshua Michael Stern. Cast: Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, Kelsey Grammer, Stanley Tucci.


It's the rare film that deserves the descriptor "Capra-esque," though many fish for it. Swing Vote, the new election-themed comedy with Kevin Costner, comes surprisingly close. Writer-director Joshua Michael Stern and his co-writer Jason Richman begin with a pretty brilliant premise for a modern-day Capra movie. A tie vote in a swing state brings a national presidential election down to one man, a simpleton named Bud Johnson (Costner) whose 5th-grade daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) managed to sneak in and vote in his name. As soon as the media gets wind that a voting-machine malfunction can be traced to Molly's vote, which they take to be Bud's, the Democratic and Republican campaigns must focus their efforts on one very confused Joe Sixpack.

In that the plot allows for political satire and the education of an American Everyman in the way society works, Swing Vote has the makings of a film worthy of Capra. Though not a romantic comedy, the film has emotional energy, which it invests in the troubled relationship between father and daughter. Costner and Carroll are every bit as good as the script allows, and there's a strong collection of supporting players: Kelsey Grammer as the Republican incumbent, Dennis Hopper as the Democratic candidate, and Nathan Lane and Stanley Tucci as their respective campaign managers. So what's wrong with this picture?

For starters, it's not terribly funny. There are mild amusements to be had, but any laughs quickly catch in the throat with the dawning awareness that Swing Vote is a black comedy that doesn't know it's a black comedy. I can imagine little creepier than a sun-drenched, smiling black comedy, but here it is. Bud is a barely functioning alcoholic whose pain over a split with his wife (Mare Winningham) has led him not only to drown his sorrows but criminally neglect his daughter, who's forced to parent him (he also loses his job for taking 31 "sick" days). This leads to jokes about Child Services and the ironic appearance of a "WORLD'S GREATEST DAD" mug. Molly's impassioned pleas to her father are met with near-indifference. The best that can be said for this guy is that he sort of loves his daughter (but he's too lazy to be loving, and his hungover actions speak much louder than the words "She's my only good thing").

Bud is also--well, "simpleton" would be a nice word for it, but let's face it, he's an idiot. Is he smarter than a 5th grader? Um, no. He has zero political awareness, he always speaks before he thinks, and he's thoroughly gullible. After what seems like an eternity, Bud finally determines to become a better person. Where Capra would make this the stuff of the comedy from the outset of the plot, Stern makes it his climax, one that'll teach the 5th graders in the audience that the best way to learn is to cram the night before the big test. Most of the film's comedy is located in Bud's stupidity, including the film's sharpest bit of satire. Learning that Bud is a big Willie Nelson fan, one of the candidates targets a campaign ad starring Nelson directly to Bud. It's a good laugh and an incisive comment when Costner says to his TV, "I'll do it, Willie!"

So what of the film's political satire? It's broad, obvious, and largely toothless. Understandably, the script is non-partisan, which is fine. The candidates try to bribe their way into Bud’s good graces, which is realistic, but when they repudiate their own beliefs and party platforms to do it, their careers seem beyond saving. In the name of comedy, both sell their political souls to such a degree that neither can be trusted. And yet, the film is forgiving, insisting these are great men who have made a mistake of human nature, and one of them will be elected as the "leader of the free world." In fact, they're whores and ideological pushovers. So when it comes down to the movie’s supposedly happy ending, it’s supremely disturbing. In one of many celebrity cameos, Ariana Huffington asks, "I wonder what the Founding Fathers would think of this." One hopes they would be aghast.

But nothing about Swing Vote is more disturbing--nay, enraging--than its ethical horrors, which the filmmakers endorse while expecting us to sign off on them. This is a film about a stolen election. I won't tell you exactly what happens at the end (not much), but I'll tell you what doesn't happen. Bud never admits that his vote is invalid. If we had, we'd have our Capra ending: the tie vote would would result in a run-off election, with a yet-more informed local electorate, having learned the value of a single vote, going to the poll in greater numbers and making democracy happen (presumably, even Bud would get to cast a legitimate vote). Instead, the ending represents a voter-fraud conspiracy perpetrated by Bud, Molly, and a hugely corrupt reporter (Paula Patton) who we're also supposed to like despite her misdeeds. Everyone in the film is manipulating everyone else, which is fine for a Moliere comedy, but offputting in a conventional movie with cameos by Mary Hart and Richard Petty.

/content/films/3153/2.jpgAgain, the black comedy gets a light treatment. The film's most serious moment is the inevitable Capra-styled speech, in which Bud admits his idiocy: "If America has a true enemy tonight, I guess it's me." There's a would-be good lesson in this attempt to shame disinterested non-voters into learning the issues and going to the polls. But this guy really is America's worst enemy--he's learned enough about politics to use them to his advantage and lie to the bitter end. What kind of message does that send? It would have been so easy for the film to serve voting justice in the end—instead fifth-graders will learn that lying is rewarded. Swing Vote would be innocuous if it weren't so utterly, utterly misguided.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD 5.1

Street date: 1/13/2009

Distributor: Touchstone Home Entertainment

Swing Vote comes to Blu-ray and DVD in mirrored special editions. The Blu-ray is, of course, preferable, though its hi-res advantage comes across in a merely serviceable transfer. In the Johnsons' dingy home, the image looks particularly noisy, grainy and sickly in color. Generally colors appearunnaturally pumped and contrast too bright; though these issues may partly owe to the film's visual scheme, they didn't seem so pronounced when I saw the film in a theater. Despite these issues, the Blu-ray offers the clean source and strong detail (including shadow detail and a strong black level) that one expects from a new film. No complaints about the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack, which provides ample aural support for the low-key comedy.

A somewhat bland audio commentary by writer/director Joshua Michael Stern and writer Jason Richman should nevertheless please fans of the film. The duo discusses character, cast, themes, and locations, hitting all the bases for a production-centric behind-the-scenes commentary track.

It's no secret that Dennis Hopper was upset that so much of his footage was cut from Swing Vote. He gets some restitution from the disc's "Deleted & Extended Scenes" (10:49 with "Play All" option and optional director's commentary, HD). We get more from Dennis Hopper, Kelsey Grammer, Nathan Lane, and Stanley Tucci, as well as a spat between Bud (Kevin Costner) and Kate (Paula Patton) and an elongated bowling outing.

"Swing Vote--Inside the Campaign: The Politics of Production" (12:58, HD) is a puff piece about the production that collects official sound bites from Richman, Stern, Kevin Costner, Grammer, Hopper, producer Jim Wilson, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Lane, Madeline Carroll, executive producer Robin Jonas, Paula Patton.

Last up is the music video "'Hey Man What About You?' Performed by Modern West" (4:17, HD), a country number with Costner on guitar and lead vocals.

Fans of the film and Kevin Costner will enjoy this disc's extras, all thankfully presented in HD on the Blu-ray edition.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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