Movie Mom

Movie Mom

Swing Vote

posted by Nell Minow
Lowest Recommended Age:High School
MPAA Rating:Rated PG-13 for language
Profanity:Very strong language for a PG-13, f-word, frequent use of bad language in front of children
Nudity/Sex:Some references
Alcohol/Drugs:Characters abuse alcohol and drugs
Violence/Scariness:Mild comic peril
Diversity Issues:Diverse characters, brief politically incorrect comments and potrayals, discussion of gay marriage
Movie Release Date:August 1, 2008
DVD Release Date:January 6, 2009

Kevin Costner the producer severely underestimates the ability of Kevin Costner the actor to win over the audience in this tepid satire of electoral politics. Through a technical and mechanical glitch, Costner’s character, an affable loser named Bud, finds himself about to cast the single vote that will determine the outcome of a Presidential election. The incumbent Republican (Kelsey Grammer) and the challenging Democrat (Dennis Hopper) and all of their flacks descend on Bud’s small New Mexico town, followed of course, by international media outlets shoving cameras and microphones at anyone they can find, all of which creates opportunities for some tweaks at American complacency and avarice, which are not too bad and some syrupy personal growth moments, which are not too good.

This idea could make a good low-budget independent film but as an expensive studio release it can’t afford to offend anyone. The result is too generic and too safe, and too easy. There are mild enjoyments along the way but ultimately Bud — and his movie — fail to have the redeeming qualities necessary to provide a satisfactory conclusion.

It is fun to see the politicians squirm and their handlers scheme as the candidates grab onto any inkling of Bud’s views and then jettison any position they’ve ever taken in order to get his vote. The problem — for the candidates and for the movie — is that Bud does not really care about anything. Not only did he not know it was election day; he didn’t know know who was running. He says the only thing he cares about is his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) but the only focus of his energy and attention is his beer buzz. Movies often are able to make heroes out of lovably irresponsible characters, but this shambling slacker is worse than irresponsible. He is so downright neglectful that he seems not just immature but selfish. The movie can’t make its mind up about whether these characters are smart or foolish, honest or corrupt. In trying to have it both ways, it undercuts any force or momentum.

Carroll is a charming screen presence, but Molly is a construct, not a character. It’s cute when she says her ambition is to be the Chairman of the Fed but it’s Hollywood cute. And the lovely Paula Patton is stuck with a yawn-inducing role as an ambitious television journalist who resolves her ethical crisis in a way that is unlikely to strike viewers as an exemplar of integrity. Like the rest of this movie, that choice is a bubble or two off prime, a disconnect between the reaction the movie expects and the reaction the audience will have.

  • Greling

    This film is predicated on the illusive lie that the popular vote actually counts, when really it’s the electoral college. In the real world someone like Bud could never exist.

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks for the comment, Greling. It’s a satire, so I suppose we have to give it some leeway. And it does try to address the electoral college issue. But its other deficiencies are even greater than the one you have identified.

  • Matt Cox

    Actually, there isn’t any discussion of the national popular vote in the movie. No one really talks about the Electoral College either, but at one point, there is a television screen that shows how many electoral votes each candidate has. One candidate (I can’t remember which) has more than the other, but neither has a majority. Although this is never said explicitly from what I can remember, it is implied that the popular vote in New Mexico is tied, and that is why Bud’s vote is needed to allow a candidate to win New Mexico’s electoral votes, therby giving him a majority of the Electoral College.

  • Nell Minow

    That’s right, Matt — Thanks for setting the record straight.

  • Dean Colton

    “Like the rest of this movie, that choice is a bubble or two off prime, a disconnect between the reaction the movie expects and the reaction the audience will have. ”
    This is an aside. I’m familiar with “a bubble off plumb,” but not “a bubble off prime.” Is this new? What’s the origin?

  • LLP

    I took my son to see this (he’s pretty savvy for his age), and we both enjoyed it immensely. Even he could see that the language and drinking were inappropriate (sometimes kids can learn from bad examples if their parents frame things right). As a satire, it was brilliant. Too many Americans are frighteningly like Bud, apathetic or so cloistered in their own little set of issues that they don’t look beyond the media hype to learn what the candidates are really about. (Isn’t that how we ended up with the last 16 years of dubious national leadership…shame on us!) We’re not a family of hard-core political activists, but with the upcoming election, we do talk about politics at home, and we don’t exclude our kids from the conversation.
    Even my 9-year-old son “got” this one, and I say “Bravo!” to the producers for encouraging us to pay attention!

  • Nell Minow

    I appreciate the comment, especially in the context of your other comment on “Bridge to Terabithia.” It shows we agree that if you know what to expect and put it in the proper context, a movie can be a good way to initiate some important discussions. And I agree with you entirely that the message of engagement and attention to the issues is one all Americans should take to heart. Thanks for writing!

  • Jenny

    I agree with LLP. What a shame this movie was marginalized, especially in this election season. We enjoyed this movie with our 11-year-old son. (The non-stereotypical depiction of the drug addict and/or mentally ill mother was very stark and realistic, not some air-brushed desperate housewife.) More kids in this country will have seen The Dark Knight, a totally inappropriate movie for kids, reinforcing violence and nihilism, when they could have seen a movie that would open their eyes to the hypocrisy, and the hopes, of democracy. What a shame.

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