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LIKE FATHER, UNLIKE DAUGHTER: Kevin Costner and Madeline Carroll play politics in 'Swing Vote.'

Beer Batter

'Swing Vote': an election hinges on the whims of Kevin Costner

By Richard von Busack

NOW IN HIS early 50s, Kevin Costner slouches handsomely through the lead role in Swing Vote with an attractive, self-amused shiftlessness. His star qualities keep this contrived movie alive. Costner plays Bud, an unemployed former worker at a Texico, N.M., eggery. Bud's one claim to fame was playing in a Willie Nelson cover band called "The Half Nelsons." When not sleeping it off in his clothes, he is being pushed and prodded through life by his precocious daughter, Molly (played by Madeline Carroll, not to be confused with Madeleine Carroll of The 39 Steps). Bud has a date with destiny. Pressured by Molly to vote on election day, he screws up even that easy task, under circumstances that look borrowed from Preston Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan Creek. Seeing her father incapacitated, Molly sneaks into the voting booth and takes his place, but the ballot is spoiled in midvote. The small New Mexico precinct becomes a key battleground when the national election is a draw. Thus the utterly apolitical rube is soon being courted personally for his vote by the incumbent Republican president (Kelsey Grammer), and the Democrat contender (Dennis Hopper).

The film has it that both the Republican and Democrat are vacant nice guys. Grammer is an amiable Gerald Ford–like dolt who thinks of world events in terms of football. Hopper's Democrat is an air-headed old hippie deflecting a nudist-colony scandal. The men are run by their campaign staffers: Stanley Tucci's Republican wizard and Nathan Lane's democratic strategist. Both supporting actors languish, waiting for a big scene they never get.In real life, Grammer and Hopper are known Republicans, one way this movie is trying to avoid accusations of liberal propaganda. Swing Vote is scrupulously apolitical. Rather than oversimplifying the issues, the film mocks the dismayingly simplistic way issues are treated in TV advertisements. Unlike many unemployed guzzlers in trailers nationwide, Bud has no resentments about how he got where he is or who put him there. He gripes about "insourcing": the bringing in of immigrants to take his blue-collar job. But it's a job Bud lost because he smuggled beer into the workplace. The security-cam footage of Bud boozing on the job is pure Homer Simpson.

Unfortunately, what works in a half-hour show gets attenuated in a feature film. Swing Vote is padded with product placement and celebrity pundits playing themselves. Ariana Huffington comes off the most lame-brained, saying that "Jefferson would be smiling up in heaven" over this situation. And director Joshua Michael Stern aims for the finale of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, complete with mailbags full of correspondence. The movie seems to get at something when Bud airs his shame for being so ignorant of the issues. But that's as deep as Swing Vote gets. A few moments later, Bud reads aloud from a letter sent to him: "If this is the richest country in the world, how come we can't afford to live here?" It's a great bumper sticker, but that's all it is if you don't get deeper. Inside that line are implicit unanswered questions: Where did the money go? Who got it? How did they get it?

Movie Times SWING VOTE (PG-13), directed by Joshua Michael Stern, written by Jason Richman and Stern, photographed by Shane Hurlbut and starring Kevin Costner and Madeline Carroll, opens Aug. 1 at selected theaters.

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