Sunday, August 03, 2008

"Swing Vote": Split decision

I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting from the first Kevin Costner flick I've seen in almost 10 years (the last being "For Love of the Game" in 1999.)

That said, I'm not a strong Costner hater. When he plays the "average guy"-type like he does in sports movies and certainly in "Swing Vote," I pretty much like him as much as anybody else. As I'll get to later, I just wish writer-director Joshua Michael Stern liked this kind of character too.

For the first almost 90 minutes or so, "Swing Vote" is exactly the kind of movie I like, and comes surprisingly close to real political satire - which means you shouldn't feel perfectly comfortable watching it. What makes the admittedly preposterous premise of one man's vote determining the actual outcome of the U.S. presidential election work is that it doesn't shy away from just how far the candidates would go to get that vote.

Even if the setups are more than a bit too broad, Stern and co-writer Jason Richman effectively poke fun at the kinds of issues that tend to dominate our political discourse and distract from the actual problems we have all around us. And watching Kelsey Grammer as the Republican president who embraces gay marriage and Dennis Hopper as the Democratic challenger who's coaxed into becoming stridently pro-life provoke genuine belly laughs. (The uncomfortableness, for me at least, is that it's so well-written it's really close to what we have right now, with Barack Obama unable to even take a position on offshore drilling and John McCain unsure of when or if he would try to pull our troops out of Iraq.)

And - in an even bigger surprise - it finds black and bleak humor in the circumstances of Costner's Bud Johnson, who gets fired from his job at a chicken plant and is pretty much taken care of by his young daughter who's played with - and forgive me for using this word - spunk by Madeline Carroll, who it's easy to see will be a big star soon. But building up Bud as a likable antihero with hard-to-swallow-but-funny jokes about Child Protective Services and cursing in discourse with children makes it all the more off putting when - in the last half hour or so - you find out that the makers of this movie actually hate hard-working people who are having a lot of trouble just getting by (which I guess I shouldn't be as surprised about as I was.)

The moment when this movie goes completely off course is telegraphed of course by the swelling music and more than a little bit of crying. And, as treacly and begging-to-be-Capra as it is (yes, even down to the sacks of letters stolen directly from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"), I'd be disappointed by that but able to stomach it if this part were a lot shorter and more importantly if it didn't contain this line (SPOILER ALERT, OBVIOUSLY, SO IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THIS BUT STILL WANT TO, YOU MIGHT WANT TO STOP HERE): "I am America's greatest enemy."

I might have been paraphrasing a bit there, but when Costner's Bud Johnson says that is his teary-eyed Jimmy Stewart moment, it just reveals the real agenda of this movie - and frankly, why Democrats keep losing presidential elections. If you really don't want the "common man" to determine who rules us, what do you want, some kind of benevolent dictator?

That, however, is a different subject for a different time, and one I could go on about at length if this were a different forum. As it is, I'll stick to "Swing Vote," which sets up so much promise before it throws it all away at the end. I'd recommend this one as a tentative rental, because the satire - when it's there - is pretty sharp and worth tuning in for (and you can always cut it off if the end just becomes too much to take.) Peace out.


Mercurie said...

I was thinking it would be a DVD rental myself. As it is, it didn't exactly receive raves from the critics.

Reel Fanatic said...

I was convinced to see it after reading a review by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times .. While she really didn't like it all that much, she was just barely enthusiastic enough to make me take a chance, and since the first part was so good, I'm not too sorry I did

Fletch said...

I've gotta disagree with your premise for disliking the end. The line about him being the enemy is true and the marketing and setup of him being the "common man" is what's false.

The average, hardworking American Joe is not unemployed. He is not an alcoholic. He is not a single father. These might be nitpicks, but I think these are important distinctions that set him far apart from the average guy or gal.

However, I even think all that is secondary to why he says and thinks he's the enemy - it's what the movie is all about, and it has nothing to do with him being poor or hardworking or average or common or any of that. He's the enemy because he is the one person singled out to pick the POTUS, and he doesn't/didn't care. About voting. About government. About his daughter. About anything but himself.

The movie is fine with the common man picking the President. It just wants him to be someone that gives a rat's ass about the outcome.

Reel Fanatic said...

You make a solid point, Fletch, even if we looked at the movie in almost completely different ways ... I think I just got caught up in the satiric nature of most of it that when the end hit so hard, I may have just read it the wrong way

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