REEL CRITIC:

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that a film about a fictional presidential election exhibits some of the same qualities as the real thing, vacillating from humorous to cynical to predictable, showing spurts of great energy interspersed with occasional lulls. “Swing Vote” meanders its way through a series of political machinations with an amusing but not completely fulfilling result.

While journalism is expected to be objective at its core, neither politics nor entertainment has the same requirement. No matter how a candidate or party is portrayed in a movie, someone is going to be critical of the final product. To their credit, screenwriters Jason Richman and Joshua Michael Stern (who also directed) have a great time making lots of fun of the entire process, portraying both the incumbent president (Kelsey Grammer) and his Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper) as foibles who are fractured contenders in a skewered game.

The object of their attention is Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) a barely likable beer-swilling loser whose lack of ambition is a complete contrast to his socially conscious young daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll).

Although she stresses the civic importance of being responsible and encourages Bud to vote — only because she registered him — he is unaware of and apathetic about the proceedings. With Molly calling him by his first name rather than “dad” and registering him as an independent because “I wanted you to sound smart,” it shows who is in charge in their loving but complicated relationship.

A malfunction with the voting machine causes the ballot cast in Bud's name to be invalidated, so the entire national election comes down to one crucial vote. The mystery of who decides this fate is uncovered by an ambitious local reporter (Paula Patton), who wrestles with her own crisis of conscience balancing career ambition against honor and a national media circus ensues. The premise of the entire country focused on a small New Mexico town is played to the extreme.

The film has two distinct tones — satire and melodrama. The authors clearly want to show how ridiculous and empty the process has become and have a field day exposing the hypocrisy of each candidate with the Republican becoming a champion of the environment and the Democrat condemning abortion. The television commercials they produce to espouse their switched positions are very funny, particularly one on immigration (which the Democrat suddenly opposes) that uses “undocumented actors.”

The dramatic parts are not as effective and slow down the pace. Yes, it's wonderful that both candidates suddenly develop misgivings at the win-at-all-costs strategies they reluctantly pursue in seeking the ultimate prize, but these segments were a bit contrived and dragged the overall story.

Is it just a coincidence that the Republican strategist (Stanley Tucci) with the winning streak was named Fox (think “sly”) and the six-time losing Democratic campaign manager (Nathan Lane) was named Crumb?

On the acting side, Costner (a credited producer) gives another committed performance and brings humility to an ordinary guy completely overwhelmed by his sudden fame and daunting responsibility, one who describes Air Force One as “a trailer with wings.”

Newcomer Carroll as his struggling daughter bravely pushes all the right emotional buttons. Comedian George Lopez does his best in a small part as the frustrated local news producer dreaming of bigger stories in major cities.

Unlike the real election cycle we're in, “Swing Vote” is not destined to become an important part of history. But if it does manage to get a few more people to think about their role in the process, it's a step in the right direction.


?PHILLIP HAIN is a Glendale resident who enjoys movies and has voted in every election since he was eligible.

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