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‘Swing Vote’ is unbelievable for all the wrong reasons

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

It started out as a really fun idea for a movie. With all the political hanky-panky in the past few years, the voting machine screw-ups and such, why not have an election so close that it comes down to one vote? Like, one anonymous, schlubby little guy in a remote and dusty corner of New Mexico gets to choose who’s going to be the President of the United States?

Great idea, full of all kinds of possibilities for some real social satire. That’s when things went down the toilet. Because somewhere along the line, some high mucky-muck in charge of such things suddenly got scared of offending ANYbody. Let’s not offend the Republics or the Democrats or the poor people or the minorities or the homeless or the government or ANYBODY ON EARTH.

So the script turned out, as you might imagine, a nicey-nicey happy little comedy and, even worse than that, a big fat bore. And completely unbelievable.

It wasn’t the one-vote-decides premise that was unbelievable. In a universe where anything is possible, that’s possible. Nope, the unbelievable part was that the President and the Nominee (Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper, respectively) were both portrayed as having a shred of decency.

Now, that’s unbelievable.

Just looking at the cast list would give anyone high hopes for this film. Besides Grammer and Hopper, it features Kevin Costner in the lead, supported by the likes of Stanley Tucci, Nathan Lane, comedian George Lopez, Judge Reinhold, and guest cameos by Willie Nelson, Richard Petty and Mare Winningham, among others.

Besides all those big names, I was impressed by a couple of gals who had leading parts. First there is busy 12-year-old Madeline Carroll (not to be confused with the real Madeleine Carroll, who was a steady movie star from the late 1920s through the 1940s). This new young Maddy plays Costner’s ultra-bright daughter and/or the voice of reason throughout the film.

Costner, did I mention, mails in his role as a unemployed drunken ne’er-do-well lout who is not only the worst single parent in the world but who (of course, and for reasons beyond ken) has a sudden boost of I.Q. and changes his whole attitude about social responsibility at the end. But then, all movies are about change, aren’t they.

But young Madeline, cut from the Dakota Fanning/Abigail Breslin mold, turns out to be the best actress in the movie.

The semi-romantic lead is assayed by absolutely gorgeous Paula Patton, who you should remember co-starred with Denzel Washington in 2006’s “Déjà vu.” She plays a TV reporter with the requisite heart o’ gold, and really isn’t given enough to do. She has a couple more movies due out this year, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her.

Costner always underplays his parts, and tends to take Costner-like low-key roles anyway. With a decent script, like in “The Upside of Anger” (2005), he is charming and even competent. But with a muted vehicle like “Swing Vote,” he turns deadly dull.

Another thing that ticked me off was the fact that Willie Nelson was on screen for less than 15 seconds, appearing in one of the far-too-few mild satires on political TV advertising. So if you were looking forward to someone making fun of Wolf Blitzer and the whole stupid television news shebang, best stick with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.”

In this misguided missile, Costner’s a redneck, NASCAR-loving moron (presumably representing the great majority of the great unwashed) and manages only to insult anyone with any brains watching the movie.

Trying to figure out why this movie went completely wrong, it seems to me that young writer/director Joshua Michael Stern was attempting to borrow upon the cache of “wisdom-of-the-masses” films from the 1940s like “Magic Town” and “Meet John Doe,” but this is 2008, baby, and we’ve all seen how friggin’ wise the masses can be in the last couple of elections.

We’ve just become too cynical to believe in us.

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