Carp all you wish about how corny and improbable Swing Vote is.
You could also nitpick the candidacies of Barack Obama and John McCain, but would you let it stop you from voting?
As the real-life presidential election approaches, Swing Vote offers a pleasantly goofy civics lesson that voters and candidates alike should take to heart.
Like Frank Capra's political comedies, this movie probes the possibilities and failings of the U.S. political system, believing that one American — even a drunken loser like Bud Johnson — truly can make a difference.
With Bud, Kevin Costner adds another character to his Hall of Americana roles, albeit soiled with beer and body odor. Costner isn't an easy actor to like when he's playing overly noble, but as a rascal with a good heart underneath the grit he's tough to beat.
Bud doesn't care about voting, or much of anything besides his daughter Molly (unremarkable newcomer Madeline Carroll). They live in a ramshackle mobile home in Texico, N.M., a dot on the map soon to be the center of the political universe.
Molly takes her civics lessons to heart, urging her father to meet her at the polling booth on Election Day. Instead, he gets drunk and passes out in the pickup truck. Molly sneaks into the polling place, forges Bud's name and steals his ballot. Before she can complete the process, a power failure occurs, scaring her away.
The next day, the electoral college race between Republican incumbent Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic contender Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) is a virtual tie. New Mexico's electoral votes will decide the winner. In an impossible-but-what-if-it-happened turn of events, Bud's recast vote will decide the fate of the nation.
But this won't be a Florida recount solution conducted in private. Both candidates and their win-at-all-cost campaign managers (Stanley Tucci, Nathan Lane) descend upon Texico with the world's media in tow. They fashion campaign ads and friendly bribes aimed at the only voter who counts now. Bud believes his wasted life is being justified. Molly thinks if he sells out, it'll be just another fatherly failure.
It's an interesting scenario, although director/co-writer Joshua Michael Stern doesn't always know what to do with it. There are so many targets to skewer — an intrusive media, flip-flopping politicians, questionable campaign tactics, etc. — that Swing Vote barely scrapes them.
In its best moments, Swing Vote lampoons the talking-point process of campaigning. Each candidate kowtows to what they think Bud believes on hot-button issues, even if it reverses stands they've taken before. A debate for Bud's benefit turns into his Mr. Smith moment, with Costner extolling the virtues of doing politics right, for the right reasons.
Swing Vote doesn't reveal which candidate wins, yet it's clear about who loses: Each of us, if we don't exercise our voting rights. Corny, but true.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.