Friday, October 14, 2011

Following Election Season: The Brilliant And Terrible Movie Swing Vote.

The Good: Message, Character, Acting
The Bad: Pacing, Plot predictability
The Basics: In a movie that problematically oscillates between the incredibly predictable and the philosophically brilliant, Swing Vote squeaks by as just worthy enough to watch.

[Note: This review was originally written in 2008 when I was on my way to Las Vegas, at the Mall Of America. Obviously, the 2008 election cycle is over, but I liked some of the thoughts in anticipation of that election that were a part of this review and decided to preserve them! Enjoy!]

While standing in line for the midnight showing of The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor last night, I found myself gazing at a movie poster for a film I had never heard of. Given how engaged I have been lately with watching and reviewing current release movies, this surprised me. The movie was called Swing Vote and the cast was led by Kevin Costner and supported by Kelsey Grammer, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Lane, and (exciting for me to discover during the opening credits) Nana Visitor. So, I decided to go to the first possible showing of Swing Vote as part of my cross-country trip. There's something cool about seeing a movie at the Mall Of America, where - oddly enough - movies are less expensive than in half of the nowhere places I've been to see movies lately.

So, I spent part of my vacation watching Swing Vote and, honestly, there has not been a movie I have seen lately where I wanted a second opinion on before writing a review of like Swing Vote. Sure, I can form an opinion and I can write an informed review, but for a change I was left with a real conundrum. How does one evaluate a movie that is technically 75% or more of what one enjoys in a movie, but leaves you with a "meh" feeling? Ten minutes into the movie, I called where the movie would end (correctly) and as the movie dragged on and on and on, I continued to feel disappointed and bored. But at the same time, the elements for success and greatness were generally present in Swing Vote.

Bud Johnson, a middle-aged drunk single father, finds reaches election day clueless as to the issues and ignorant of the candidates. His daughter, engaged, aware and intelligent beyond her years, writes a noteworthy essay on the value of voting for a school project, garnering the attention of local reporter Kate Madison. Proud of his daughter, Bud agrees to take her to vote to help her out with a class project, despite his obvious shortcomings of political awareness. Unfortunately for Molly, Bud loses his job, gets drunk and misses his opportunity to vote. In the process, Molly slips in to vote for him, but the voting machine fails.

So begins the series of improbable events which put the state of New Mexico in the vital position of deciding the presidential election and thus, Bud Johnson's single vote - to be cast within ten days - becomes the deciding voice of American politics. As Molly watches, media, the candidates and pundits descend upon Texaco, New Mexico to interview Bud and learn how he intends to vote. Amid a stampede of mail, wooing by President Boone and Democratic Candidate Donald Greenleaf, and pressure from the media, Bud begins to piece together how out of touch he is with everything and everyone in his life.

The fundamental problems with Swing Vote are that the plot is dreadfully predictable and the pacing is cripplingly slow. Snail's pace slow, that's how bad Swing Vote is for developing. It feels like it is taking the ten days between when Johnson's vote is lost and when he will cast his lawful vote. The movie develops with a speed that makes a Korean epic seem fast. And because the viewer is bombarded with the same thing over and over again, it is hard to stay engaged. In other words, unless one is truly as clueless and disengaged as Bud is, they will know where the movie is going and they get the point long before Bud does. To that end, we know almost immediately that Bud is not a man of strong opinions.

Bud is characterized in the very beginning as happiest when sleeping and so utterly clueless that he cannot come up with a single reason to save his own job when pressed by his boss. The viewer gets that there is nothing important to Bud and as unlikable as it is, not even Molly is an exception to that. Indeed, it is only when the Secret Service agent illustrates a deeper knowledge of what is going on in Molly's life that Bud actually becomes upset enough to act and change his ways. But as far as his actions, while Bud claims to love Molly and want to do anything to keep her with him, he fails utterly, including missing her "Take Your Father To Work Day."

The plot, then, is further slowed down by the fact that it is predictable as all get-out. This is a surprisingly formulaic movie and it sets up all of the conceits rather early. Bud and Molly have been abandoned by Molly's mother, whom Bud still pines for. Given the threat of being left, one may assume near the beginning that Mamma Johnson is going to pop up and she does. Moreover, the tension between Molly and Bud and their "little white lie" which will determine the presidency (i.e. that Bud did not originally cast a vote, Molly forged his signature to do so) sets up the inevitable debate over the value of telling the truth. And the end is exactly what anyone with a brain will peg it for. After all, this is a movie about the process, not the results. The kicker of the plot is that it is predictable and it is dully executed in that there are truly no surprises in Swing Vote, so it is a long time in getting to . . . well, nothing.

That said, the movie contains a complexity to it that is admirable and its message is one that deserves to be said, especially in an election year. In the tradition of The American President and Man Of The Year, Swing Vote presents a civics lesson for the masses and reinforces the importance of genuine democracy. But, just as The American President was a civics lesson turned entertainment, Swing Vote rightly exposes the various perspectives that are present in - and dangerous to - democracy in the United States. Molly has a throwaway line about Bud as an Independent because the two-party system has failed America, quietly dismissing the natural question of "What happens if Bud votes for a third party candidate?" In this mythical election, there are only two choices. Writer Jason Richman and Writer-director Joshua Michael Stern rightly explore both sides of the issues. Often with satire - like Man Of The Year - Swing Vote relies on cutting through the b.s. to the fundamental truths both parties live by. Incumbent President Boone is about winning and Greenleaf's campaign manager is about the exact same thing because he is tired of being on the right side of every issue, but losing elections. Philosophies can be absolutely correct and even held by the majority of citizens, yet not win elections and those who run those losing campaigns end up broken and politically unemployable.

But it is not until one of the final scenes that all of the complex political messages are put to use in any truly meaningful way and by that time the audience has stopped caring. Indeed, the whole idea that Bud Johnson's voice is the only important one in America by this point is redundant by the time Molly encourages him to live up to that responsibility. We get it the moment the candidates start courting Bud and responding to his slightest utterance with political advertisements. We get it; Bud Johnson is the voice of the everyman, the voice of the people. And that he is able to ask the important questions to the President and Greenleaf is both astonishing and wonderful. But then, it is precisely that kind of a movie.

Those who have a problem with stereotypes will have some serious issues with the film's depiction of Republicans and - especially - Democrats. The Democrats are played as wussy tree hugging losers so desperate for a win that they don't stand for anything. The Republicans are portrayed as win-at-all-costs authoritarians who will act upon any demand to retain power and control. And the Democrats are the celebrities and the Republicans bring the Nascar folks to Bud and it's obvious in all those ways that would be offensive, were it not for the many, many examples available from the past seven years to support them.

And the whole media plot of Swing Vote has a thoroughly admirable statement to make; each voice is important. The candidates ought to be asked the tough questions. It is Kate Madison who sees the potential in Molly and that is a wonderful twist, but it puts the emphasis on Molly's message: complacency is the death of the Republic. In this election year, it makes one wonder: why aren't the candidates being asked the questions that should be asked, the ones that would make them cringe if they were actually pressed to answer them?

But as I sat watching Swing Vote and not enjoying myself, I kept asking, "What could they be doing better?" Bud and Molly and even Kate have pretty wonderful character arcs. They develop, they are real and they have a point and purpose (even if we can see it coming). Moreover, the candidates learn their valuable lessons of the importance of standing for something (ironically presented by Stern and Richman in the courting of a common man who stands for nothing). And we, the viewers, are left wondering "Where is our Bud Johnson?"

Stanley Tucci, whom I enjoyed in his brief role in Lucky Number Slevin, is impressive as Martin Fox, the sleazy campaign manager for President Boone. Unlike most of his good-natured characters wit redemptive qualities, Tucci plays Fox as a truly slimy political operative. He is cold and calculating in a way anyone who likes Tucci will be disturbed by. The performance is brilliance for its simplicity and the way Tucci delivers almost every one of his lines with the sense of ethical detachment that makes one have no doubt what is going through his character's mind at every moment.

Kevin Costner plays Bud and he and costar Paula Patton have excellent on screen chemistry. What Patton and Costner have in simmering attraction, Costner and Madeline Carroll have in a weird father/daughter-wife chemistry. Costner is especially effective as the working poor Bud. Just as Nathan Lane slickly and beautifully delivers his sound byte, jingoistic platitudes with flair and a slick quality, Costner delivers almost every line of his with a drunken, dumb, "aw, shucks" quality (minus the implied charm). In other words, this might be the perfect use of Costner; he plays a washed up loser expertly.

But the one who steals the film is Madeline Carroll. Carroll defies my distaste for all young people and children in films by being articulate, realistic and holding her own against every major star put in her path. She has the humorous lines expertly timed and when she pulls for the heartstrings, she gets them. Her performance is mature, unwaveringly solid and a delight to see. And with the acting up to this caliber, it becomes very difficult not to recommend this film, despite being cripplingly dull. So, that is why - ultimately - I am recommending it.

In an election year, it is especially important to get the message out and if nothing else, Swing Vote is about message. It is about the importance of not choosing between the lesser of two evils, but about being engaged citizens. It is about responding to what is truly important in our lives. Swing Vote expertly illustrates that the personal is political, that we all have a stake in the political process and we need - desperately - to exercise that. To hell with it taking forever to get there!

And while I have absolutely no hope that operatives from either campaign are reading my humble review, Swing Vote inspires me to ask the candidates as directly as I can - or beg those who have the opportunity to put our candidates on the spot with substantive questions that could change the way we debate politics in America - the following:

(For John McCain:) In the last few years, there have been ample opportunities to stand up for human rights and the inherent value of human dignity. As a former prisoner of war and victim of unspeakable brutality at the hands of the enemy, could you please tell us what level of torture do you deem acceptable in the pursuit of national security?

(For Barack Obama:) Given your repeated statements about how wrong the Iraq War was and your refusal to support it and knowing that only Congress can end a war, if elected president, would you ask the lame duck congress to withdraw the presidential authority for the War in Iraq and have the troops withdrawn by January 20, 2009 in order to begin your administration free of that conflict?

And for those reading this review and wondering how this has anything at all to do with Swing Vote, this is exactly the point; Swing Vote implores us to use any moment we have a voice and a question to ask those in power about what is important to us. Using this venue, believe it or not, shows I "got" it with Swing Vote. For a movie as dreadfully put together, I'd rather illustrate I "got" it and try than . . . well, be complacent.

For other works featuring George Lopez, be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Smurfs
Valentine's Day
The Spy Next Door


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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