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Originally published July 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 31, 2008 at 10:39 AM

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Movie review

"Swing Vote": Melodrama takes all the fun out of political satire

"Swing Vote," starring Kevin Costner, feels like two movies squished together — and neither one very brilliant, says Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2 stars

"Swing Vote," with Kevin Costner, Paula Patton, Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci, George Lopez, Madeline Carroll. Directed by Joshua Michael Stern, from a screenplay by Jason Richman and Stern. 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language. Several theaters.

"Swing Vote," an oddly off-balance comedy directed by Joshua Michael Stern, feels like two movies; one much better than the other. One of the movies is a sad little small-town drama about a child abandoned by her mother and ignored by her hard-drinking father, complete with a gooey soundtrack, and it's well acted but ultimately feels manipulative and predictable. The other movie, a genuinely funny political satire, peeks in around the edges of the drama and steals all its thunder, like a class clown stepping all over a speech by an earnest student body president.

Kevin Costner, playing a guy as doltish as Crash Davis of "Bull Durham" is smart, stars as Bud Johnson, the amiable yet neglectful single dad to 12-year-old Molly (Madeline Carroll, who does a nice job of letting her eyes convey perpetual worry). She's basically raising herself: driving him home when he drinks too much, remembering what she needs for school, reminding him that he needs to vote in the presidential election (she mailed in his registration form). Out of some foggy idea of pleasing Molly, Bud does indeed go to vote — and, due to a glitch in the voting machine, learns that his vote didn't count. The two candidates are deadlocked, and Bud's vote, scheduled to be recast, will decide the election.

The movie inhabits two locales: Bud and Molly's small New Mexico town, where a flag flies outside the bingo hall and dust floats in the air, and the slick, suited world of presidential politics, where everything becomes sped-up. Kelsey Grammer, who's remarkably good at capturing a politician's camera-frozen smile, is the incumbent, President Andrew Boone; Dennis Hopper is his Democratic challenger, Donald Greenleaf. Both men, with the help of fast-talking aides (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane, respectively) immediately focus their campaigns on Bud; meeting him and hanging on his every word. If Bud says something vaguely opposed to illegal immigrants, Greenleaf puts out a campaign ad decrying them (including actors, hilariously, racing behind him toward some invisible border). If he says he doesn't have a problem with gay marriage, Boone immediately makes an ad celebrating it. These ads are sharp and funny, and for a few minutes "Swing Vote" becomes a satire that works.

But not for long enough. The Molly subplot — she at one point runs away to find her mother — is just too sad for a movie that's billed as a comedy, and the feel-good ending comes off as both predictable and unearned. The cast is strong and there's a lot of charm in the performances; Costner, a better actor than he's often given credit for being, manages to make his poorly written character just a bit lovable. (Meeting a pretty TV reporter, he's sweetly dazzled: "We got an old [TV] set; it kind of squershes you.") But ultimately "Swing Vote," with its parade of real-life media figures, doesn't add up to much; it's both a melodrama with a few funny parts squershed in, and a satire without bite.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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