'Swing Vote' takes sharp aim

Ed Symkus

On one level, “Swing Vote” is a witty piece of satire that mixes in a generous supply of drunk jokes and pratfalls. On another, it takes sharp aim at politicians of all persuasions, and makes them out to be trained monkeys who do what they’re told by poll-conscious campaign managers. That the script also manages to work in a heartwarming but prickly father-daughter relationship is one of the reasons people are going to enjoy this film so much.

Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is a lazy drunk who’d rather be sleeping than working, and who loses his dead-end position in an egg-packing plant after a surveillance camera catches him (in a hilarious scene) in a little on-the-job drinking. He’s also the loving, but careless, single dad of 12-year-old Molly (newcomer Madeline Carroll), who’s a bright student, and who runs their trailer home as if she’s become the mom who left long ago.

While Bud is as apolitical as one can get — eschewing voting and anything else “official” — Molly is the rare 12-year-old who’s interested in politics. She so badly wants her dad to get up off his rump and take an interest in the process, she manages to register for him, then gets him to promise to vote in the upcoming presidential election, even though he’s told her that “voting doesn’t count for a goddamn thing.”

The race is be between the incumbent Republican president (Kelsey Grammar), who regularly whitens his teeth and figures that finding a cure for cancer would really boost his legacy, and the challenging Democrat (Dennis Hopper), who pledges that when he wins, the White House will become the Rainbow House, and will be open to all.

It turns out that Bud is a man who makes, then breaks, promises. An angry, disappointed Molly manages to sneak in “his vote” herself, but then there’s a glitch — something akin to an electronic version of a hanging chad. And before you can say “Florida, 2000,” the national election comes down to a dead heat. The election will be decided by one vote that needs to be recast in a little town called Texico, New Mexico.

We’ve heard that every vote counts, but this is ridiculous.

Yup, that’s where Bud and Molly live, and since goofball Bud has unwittingly become the man to cast that vote, it’s where both presidential candidates, every person working in the media, and every group — Amnesty International, Planned Parenthood, alien whackos, proponents of “marijuana is medicine” — converge.

The film is fast and funny, but the message of the importance of voting is never far from its center. And the actors — delivering the solid script — all get high marks. Costner shows off some comic chops that he’s kept hidden all these years, and Carroll, in her first starring role, manages to be convincingly worried, completely self-assured, and totally believable when asked to let the tears fall, all while remaining a feisty little kid.

Highlights include a batch of pundit cameos, running from James Carville and Chris Matthews to Larry King and Bill Maher; a pretty darn good musical sequence featuring Costner and his band Modern West; and an outrageously funny pro-life ad.

And you couldn’t ask for a better ending, if you liked the endings of, say, “Limbo” and “Sideways.” And if it reminds, or convinces, one person to vote, that’s good, too.

Rated PG-13. “Swing Vote” contains some bad language.