You've had it drummed into your skull since junior high civics class: Every single vote counts. Diebold machines and hanging chads notwithstanding, it's still a resonant, if improbable, message that any citizen of our nation might cast the deciding vote in an election.
"Swing Vote" puts a serio-comic twist on the premise, turning a trailer park layabout (Kevin Costner) into the sole decider of a presidential tie.
Through an Electoral College stalemate, the race comes down to the swing state of New Mexico. It comes down, in fact, to Bud Johnson, a beer-marinated single dad who promised his socially responsible 12-year-old daughter (Madeline Carroll) that he would shake off his usual lethargy and visit the polling station.
Through a mechanical malfunction, Bud's ballot is not recorded and he is allowed to cast it again. But first he is courted one-on-one by the Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper), who converge on his flyspeck hometown to convince disenfranchised Bud that they deserve his vote.
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The film's strengths are Costner's laid-back work as Bud, an affable ignoramus with a heart of gold, and the absurd policy contortions the candidates go through to woo him.
In a series of satirical campaign commercials, the conservative beams approvingly at gay couples and champions environmental protection while the liberal lashes out at Roe v. Wade and praises "God's intelligent design."
The bits are funny in and of themselves. The anti-abortion spot features a playground full of happy children who vanish one by one in little mushroom-cloud poofs. But the ads are also a well-deserved poke at candidates' tendency to compromise their ideals and run to the middle as Election Day nears.
Costner is a master at this kind of lovable loser role. He is blissfully silly in a scene where he hears a no-nonsense knock on the door, concludes that the child protection authorities are after him again, and slips a crucifix necklace over his daughter's head.
Hopper successfully plays against type as the milquetoast Democrat and Grammer brings some executive gravitas to the part of the president.
Abundant media personalities join the journalistic invasion force that descends on Bud's single-wide. Chris Matthews, Aaron Brown, Larry King, Arianna Huffington and Bill Maher play themselves.
The film is handsomely produced, with an all-star cast including Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane as PR spinmeisters. Costner poured $21 million of his own money into it. Like many vanity projects, it's a bit overlong and self-important.
Still, its heart is in the right place. At a time when 80 percent of the public despises political officeholders, it's fun to see them take a shellacking.
"Swing Vote" doesn't take the facile route of mocking and blaming politicians, with Costner's character as national savior. Bud has convictions, sort of, and a core of decency, but he is woefully uninformed and lazy -- a real mainstream American, the film implies.
It takes his precocious daughter to shame him into making more of an effort to understand the issues and the consequences of his decision.
"Swing Vote" captures the spirit of an election year in which many once-apathetic Americans are keenly interested in the outcome. We have met the enemy and he is us. But so is the hero.