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.