“He’s made us the laughing stock of the entire world,” grumbles Bill Maher. Mr. Real Time isn’t the only one who’s had it with the unemployed, undereducated single dad at the center of Swing Vote, but first to say it out loud: “Bud Johnson is a dumbass.”
The line comes as something of a climax in the film, in that Bud (Kevin Costner) sees it on television and lo, he begins to wonder about his public image. This in addition to his growing concerns that his smart, charming, and infinitely patient 12-year-old, Molly (Madeline Carroll), is tired of being embarrassed by his drunken good ol’ boy antics, that their trailer is falling apart, and oh yes, that “the entire world” is expecting him to blow it big-time when he casts his vote to decide who will be president of the United States.
Bud gets to this point of semi-crisis by a series of preposterous accidents and plot contrivances. The gimmick here is that Bud is supposed to cast the single vote that will decide the U.S presidential election: the electoral college system is so jammed up that one tied precinct in New Mexico will break a national deadlock, and that one vote has been left uncast in a malfunctioning voting machine. The ostensible choice is between two slick pols, conservative President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and liberal opponent Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper). When they learn his vote is the only one they have to win, they descend on Texaco with campaign headquarters and paraphernalia, empty promises, and all manner of bribes (a chance to sit on Air Force One, a visit from Richard Petty, a chance to sing a song with his Willie Nelson cover band, the Half-Nelsons (this is the movie’s most excruciatingly self-indulgent moment, when Costner takes up the mic).
The satire is consistently unsurprising, even if it’s warranted. Not only will the candidates stoop to any self-debasing level to get the damn vote, but the press corps is also reduced to a vile swarm of news vans and boom mics. If it’s not exactly a new concept to hate the media, the seeming exception, local TV reporter Kate (Paula Patton), embodies another sort of banality, the Ambitious Woman Who Must Learn to be Nurturing. Worse, her desire to get to network is underscored and redoubled by her boss, also dying to get out of New Mexico and played by George Lopez as a semi-self-aware stereotype, calling for chalupes and slipping into an accent when he gets excited. In fact, the movie’s race politics are mushy throughout; though Bud and his friends are exceedingly white, he and Molly both insist more than once that the next president attend to the needs of “the working poor,” and the film helpfully illustrates with occasional shots of Native Americans and Latinos.
Such fleeting citations exemplify the film’s tenuity. The candidates are easy targets, along with their handlers: Boone’s chief of staff Martin (Stanley Tucci) all but rubs his hands together and smacks his lips while conniving to “win over one American mind,” while Greenleaf’s campaign manager, Art Crumb (Nathan Lane) comes up the with brilliant notion that his guy appear in a police-the-borders ad when he thinks Bud resents Mexicans for taking his job (Bud’s actually not so sure about this, as, again, he tends to see all poor people in the same boat). But while Greenleaf’s anti-Mexican and anti-abortion ads are easily the funniest bits in the film, they only accentuate the pabulum of the other material.
It’s only when Mrs. Greenleaf (Nana Visitor) shows up that her husband begins to notice his campaign for one vote is veering in “the wrong direction.” Though her appearance is brief, it echoes Molly’s general and ongoing frustrations with her dad and the “system” that tries to hard to use him. She was the one who first got him into this mess, insisting that he vote so she could write a school report on his sense of responsibility, though he doesn’t even know who’s running, being, after all, a “dumbass.”
It’s one thing to be dumb, another to be mean. When Molly first asks Bud to vote so she can write the paper, he nods and smiles, amiable and clueless. She glares at him: “If you screw this up, I’m going to leave you!”, she hisses, at which point he laughed out loud — at her. While Molly is surely set up as the precocious, over-achieving girl (the kinds of parts Dakota Fanning plays), such cruelty makes Molly nearly sympathetic, just because you know she’ll have to endure for the film’s duration.
Indeed, Molly is the single bright spot in a film that’s desperate for them. She sees through most of the adults around her (though she does give Bud endless second chances), rolling her eyes so you know she knows what’s going wrong, giving you a place to watch from that’s both pseudo-cynical and sentimental. From the moment she’s put into a spotlight — by Kate, who’s impressed by her essay on civic responsibility (and her as yet undecided life’s goal, to be either a veterinarian or chairman of the Fed) and puts her on the evening news — Molly is more cognizant of ethical, social, and political complexities than her dad.
Though Kate might be a useful model for Molly (her junkie mom, played by Mare Winningham, appears late in the film, to make Bud the good parent, relatively speaking), in fact Molly has to help her sort out her priorities. While it’s not a terrible or even unusual thing to set a 12-year-old as your film’s moral center, the poor kid is looking awfully lonely by the end of this one.