In the new Kevin Costner film, Swing Vote, about a small-town schlub thrust into the global spotlight by a voting glitch, the obvious Capra-esque quality has eluded nobody. But there are other cultural echoes resonating in the film, including having been enabled and inspired by TV’s deliciously trailer trashy “My Name Is Earl” and something closer to home (Costner has made a specialty of these rumpled, stubbly characters ripe for a mid-life renewal process). We meet such a Costner-esque character in shot number one, as Bud Johnson’s precocious young daughter (the wholly engaging newcomer Madeline Carroll) rouses him from his hungover stupor to take her to school, to wake up to the life he’s sleeping and drinking through.
We’ve seen this guy before, in Bull Durham and Tin Cup, although those characters had fallen from grace and were trying to make their way back, compared to the basically shiftless and apathetic version we get here.
The bizarre twist of fate occurs through a voting machine mishap, suddenly making Bud’s revote the single deciding factor in the election. Media, like a virus, pours into the small town, and the candidates bend over backward to court Bud.
Just in time for election year follies and this fall’s potentially scene-changing presidential vote, the film’s political satire fangs are bared, but with a gentle bite. Kelsey Grammer plays the Republican incumbent and Dennis Hopper the Democratic wannabe, and both campaigns gleefully flip flop on issues to woo the voting body politic-being this one sub-average Joe in Texico, New Mexico. Their TV ads are hilarious comic moments in themselves, and revealing of the anything-for-a-vote duplicity of the two-party process.
For all of its various and periodic charms, the movie moves along with a kind of generic feel-good pleasantry, but gains a surprising, sudden late-inning depth. Mare Winningham’s brief but telling appearance provides the reality previously missing from the fluffy narrative, and Costner pulls out an impressive climactic speech moment in the clinch. It appears that this character, fending off the beer and finally recognizing his civic duty, may pull off a Costner-esque rebound, after all.