A Shirley Temple movie camouflaged as political Capra-corn, Swing Vote has one lively satiric idea in its midsection: With a presidential election to be decided by a lone, unbathed New Mexico redneck (Kevin Costner, starting out with a Billy Bob Thornton impression and gradually assuming his familiar persona), the candidates produce TV spots with content dictated solely by the media-besieged drunk’s ill-informed, tentative interviews. The Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) pledges support for gay marriage, surrounded by a gaggle of queer cops, firemen and soldiers; the Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper), convinced the swing voter is pro-life, walks through a playground as kids disappear in puffs of smoke, vowing to curb abortions. Then the movie goes right back to its timid, colorless approximation of an electoral pageant that serves as mere backdrop to its trailer-home domestic treacle.
Twelve-year old Molly (proficient, automaton-like Madeline Carroll) is caretaker, mother and spouse to Costner’s laid-off, lazy dad Bud Johnson. A civic-minded monomaniac, she warns him on Election Day to vote “or I’m leaving you”; he doesn’t, she tries to cast a ballot in his place, and the subsequent contrivances find her using the 10-day run-up to Bud’s “revote” as a battle to complete his rehabilitation as citizen and father. Partying through the shower of perks (poker on Air Force One, a white-trash banquet featuring his newly-paroled Willie Nelson cover band) lavished on him by rival campaign Machiavellis (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane), Bud—whose name is the most shameless of the movie’s product placements—is bound, after 110 minutes of moronic indulgence, to make a sobering reassessment of his failures and fateful choice before a national debate audience in the penultimate scene. Cynics of all stripes crumble before the tears and perorations of all-powerful Molly, including the local news reporter (Paula Patton) whose ambition and sinister tactics will be chucked at the 11th hour.
It’s a hard call as to whether Swing Vote’s mirthlessness is more oppressive than its insulting idea of Costner’s loser as the working-class salt of the earth, or if its dishonesty takes the prize. Bud professes great “respect” for the two whorish pols who’ve been lying to procure his decisive vote; Costner’s Field of Dreams Everyman would’ve told them to fuck off, voted third party and let the House of Representatives decide the election. (Molly has a throwaway line during the opening credits about the major parties’ abandonment of the poor, and that’s the last note hit in that key by Jason Richman and director Joshua Michael Stern’s script.) An inflated, dumbed-down variation on the 1939 John Barrymore vehicle The Great Man Votes, Swing Vote is as tired as its stunt of casting a dozen cable-news blowhards as themselves. Replacing its father-love syrup with genuine election-year vinegar would be change you could believe in, or at least stay awake through.