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‘Swing Vote’

Suppose they held a presidential election and nobody cared. Especially the one guy whose lone vote will decide the whole shebang.

That’s the semipreposterous premise of the genial “Swing Vote,” a timely — yet timeless — political comedy packing a welcome reminder that Kevin Costner can still make contact when he gets a pitch he can hit.

Of course, he’s no John Barrymore — as a fallen sot, fighting for custody of his children, who gains new stature when two mayoral candidates battle for his vote in the 1939 charmer “The Great Man Votes.”

I don’t know if writer-director Joshua Michael Stern (the dreary “Neverwas”) and co-writer Jason Richman (the labored “Bad Company”) have seen “The Great Man Votes,” but several similarities between it and “Swing Vote” make me wonder.

Set in the fictional map-dot New Mexico town of Texico (played by the real New Mexico towns of Belen and Corrales), “Swing Vote” focuses on an underemployed Joe Sixpack with an all too appropriate nickname: Bud.

Bud stumbles through life with the able assistance of his precocious daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll). She’s the one who drags him out of bed in the morning and makes sure he has his breakfast. She’s also the one who reads the newspaper and keeps up with the issues affecting financially strapped families like hers.

Her classroom essay on the importance of voting is inspirational enough to attract the attention of local TV news reporter Kate Madison (an earnest Paula Patton). But it’s not inspirational enough to get her dad to vote on Election Day — despite the fact that Molly needs his ballot stub for a class project.

Bud’s too busy boozing it up to blot out the guilty knowledge that he’s lost his job at the local egg-processing plant, forcing Molly to take matters into her own hands and mark Bud’s ballot for him. (She’s better informed on the issues anyway.)

Inevitably, a voting-machine glitch interrupts the process. Equally inevitably, the entire election between the Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) and the Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper) hinges on the New Mexico outcome — which in turn hinges on the one voter in Texico whose ballot wasn’t counted, and who’s entitled to cast it one more time.

Suddenly, the whole world’s watching a NASCAR dad who lives in a trailer, loves to fish — and loves to drink like a fish — who responds to questions about his presidential preference with an affable “Remind me again who’s runnin’?”

Thus begins Bud’s ascent (or descent, depending on your viewpoint) into the spotlight. Both candidates rush to Texico to court his support, their campaign chiefs (Stanley Tucci as Grammer’s quietly ruthless Svengali, Nathan Lane as Hopper’s desperate-for-victory manager) staging multiple stunts to win Bud’s favor.

Kate, who broke the story, and her news director (a live-wire George Lopez) recognize their ticket to the big time — but wind up battling the national punditocracy for the story. (You almost need a scorecard to keep track of the cameos, featuring everyone from James Carville and Chris Matthews to Arianna Huffington and Mary Hart.)

And while good ol’ Bud’s in the center ring of the greatest media circus on Earth, poor Molly’s at home, reading letters from fellow Americans who have poured out their hearts — and their problems — to her indifferent dad.

While watching “Swing Vote,” I kept wishing the great Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) were still around to direct it.

A master of tone and comedic pacing, Capra would have smoothed out the rough patches between “Swing Vote’s” crowd-pleasing humor and its more thoughtful moments. Unlike Stern, whose herky-jerky approach reminds me of a balky transmission on a weatherbeaten pickup. (Which is, naturally, what Bud drives.)

The movie’s mild satiric jabs at such can’t-miss targets as pandering politicians and piranhalike media might have had real teeth. And, of course, Capra never would have allowed his screenwriters to descend into caricature the way Stern and Richman repeatedly do.

Fortunately for “Swing Vote,” the actors playing those caricatures have enough dramatic savvy to turn them into characters again, from Judge Reinhold as Bud’s disgruntled co-worker to Mare Winningham, a dramatic powerhouse in a single scene as Molly’s mess of a mother. (She’s almost too powerful, compared to the rest of the movie’s more lighthearted mood.)

The sly, inscrutable Tucci and the combustible Lane offer amusing contrast as the candidates’ respective gurus, echoing Grammer’s pompous bombast and Hopper’s tree-hugging idealism. (Even so, I kept thinking how much more fun it would have been if Grammer and Hopper had traded roles.) And, as Molly, Carroll proves a winningly no-nonsense presence.

From first to last, however, “Swing Vote” is Costner’s movie — and he knows it. It helps that Bud’s another variation on one of his signature roles, the charming rascal who comes to realize, almost too late, how much he’s missed through clueless self-indulgence.

“Swing Vote” sometimes makes that point with preachy heavy-handedness, but Costner understands that less is more. Especially in a movie trying to serve up a bit of nutritional value along with all the (pop)corn.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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