Can I be honest?
I've never really cared for Kevin Costner.
It's not so much that I have anything against Costner. It's nothing like my passionate distaste for actress Demi Moore. I can even acknowledge that Costner has done some mighty fine work, including such films as "Dances with Wolves" and the recent "The Upside of Anger."
There's just something about Costner that rubs me the wrong way...perhaps it is his penchant for big budget vanity projects that smell of self-indulgence.
"The Postman"...functional, at best.
Even "Dances with Wolves" has always struck me as trying too hard to be a really important film. With "Dances with Wolves," Costner actually got pretty darn close.
Despite my unresolved Costner issues, I have to acknowledge that occasionally he really nails it.
"Swing Vote" is one of those occasions.
Wrapped around this fairly modest little film is one of Kevin Costner's best performances. Costner plays New Mexico resident Bud, a beer swiggin' loser whose 12-year-old daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll, "Resident Evil: Extinction") has far surpassed his own level of maturity. A chain of events leads to the unlikely occasion that Bud's vote will determine the presidential election, a choice that comes down to the Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) and the Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper).
Despite having a central theme of politics, "Swing Vote" is very much about Bud. While many of us who watched aghast as the results from the last presidential came in and we learned that idiots can, indeed, determine the results of a presidential election, "Swing Vote" is a smarter than expected film because Costner plays Bud without a hint of cynicism or cheekiness. Instead, Costner's Bud is simply a man for whom the American dream never really panned out and, as a result, he goes through life like many Americans go through life...oblivious to the world around him and blind to the power he has to change the world.
If there's a central theme to "Swing Vote," it's simply that even the least of us has the power to change the world. It's a lesson that Bud learns, and it's a lesson learned by these two politicians, whose political maneuvering becomes oddly familiar the more absurd it gets.
Costner is spot-on perfect as Bud, a man who seems to have intentionally chosen stupidity as a way to escape any of life's responsibilities. Whereas so many actors would have been tempted to turn Bud into an alcoholic caricature played for laughs, Costner's Bud gets under the skin as a man who has made bad decisions for so long that he seems almost unable to make good ones. While "Swing Vote" is a comedy and, indeed, Costner is quite funny, he's funny because he finds the natural, authentic humor in the situation and his character rather than in treating his character as a joke.
There's a big difference, and Costner clearly knows it.
As Bud's mature beyond her years daughter, Madeline Carroll offers one of 2008's best performances by a young actress in a film not featuring Abigail Breslin.
The supporting cast is strong as well, with both Hopper and Grammer shining as the disturbingly true-to-life politicians. Mare Winningham, in what amounts to a single scene, gives "Swing Vote" tremendous depth and an emotional core that one might not expect from such a comedy.
Adding to the film's authenticity, noted political reporters such as Arianna Huffington and Chris Matthews show up in supporting roles. You'll also notice a host of other brief appearances and/or cameos from the likes of Nathan Lane, Judge Reinhold, Richard Petty, George Lopez and others.
Director Joshua Michael Stern ("Neverwas") nicely blends the film's comedy and drama, and steers the script he co-wrote with Jason Richman away from grand political statements in favor of the simple reminder that our vote does truly matter.
While "Swing Vote" is far from a brilliant film, it is a surprisingly satisfying and resonant film feature strong performances from lead Kevin Costner and the ensemble cast. In a nation where political campaigns now cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars, "Swing Vote" is a funny and timely reminder that when it call comes down to it you and I really do make a difference.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic