by Andrew Jupin
The last time the film world saw Morgan Spurlock and his handlebar mustache he was wolfing down cheeseburgers and fish fillet sandwiches in his 2004 docutainment film, Super Size Me. Since then, Spurlock has been hiding on the small screen with his hit television show, 30 Days. I can't say as I've seen much of him considering I don't watch his show. I've seen a few episodes, but never became a follower; which in all honesty is too bad. Spurlock accomplishes what people like Michael Moore fail to in their work: create a documentary that is informative as well as entertaining without coming off like a pretentious loud-mouth.
With his new film, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, Spurlock keeps to his true form of entertaining while presenting a very positive message. The advertising campaign for the film, which couldn't save it from its ultimate failure at the box office, provoked audiences with the possibility that Spurlock himself had indeed found Bin Laden. Had this McDonald's guy actually found the world's most wanted man?
I'm comfortable in telling you that that is not the case. Of course the guy didn't find Bin Laden. But what he did find was a very clever way to trick audiences into watching a film with a message of tolerance, acceptance and understanding. While he does go around several countries asking people if they know where he can find Osama Bin Laden, it's all done in jest. Spurlock knows he's not going to come across anyone who will point him in an accurate direction. But in talking to these people, Spurlock is able to paint a picture of the Muslim world that most Americans are oblivious to. He's able to show that not every practicing Muslim in the world is a terrorist.
The unfortunate thing for this film is that no one saw it. Perhaps it was the marketing strategy--posters for the film parodied Raiders of the Lost Ark featuring Spurlock pretending to crack Indy's classic whip (he's actually throwing a weighted net)--or perhaps it was the American film-going audience and their attitude toward the subject matter. Are people turned off by Spurlock's good-natured approach to such a sensitive issue? If they are, they shouldn't be. Spurlock is like the fourth grade history teacher who was able to make the material fun. By that I mean, he can turn the most dis-interested, ignorant, pig-headed student into a well-informed individual. While some of the film's flashiness does grow stale--there are several animated sequences featuring a video game version of Spurlock fighting Bin Laden in a "Mortal Kombat" type setting--it is easy to overlook them in favor of the interviews and insight from the people Spurlock manages to talk to and even his own reflexive narration.
The DVD features several interviews and extras that are at most times informative. You don't have to bother with the alternate ending which is mostly just more Spurlock "Mortal Kombat" stuff. But interviews with the likes of Israeli President Shimon Peres and former IRA leader Martin McGuinness are incredibly interesting. I strongly urge one and all to check out the film on DVD. It's not a must-own by any means, but certainly something to add to the Netflix queue.
Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is out on DVD tomorrow, August 26th.
by Andrew Jupin
by Brett Parker
Actor/Comedian Bernie Mac passed away on August 9th at the age of 50, after suffering complications from pneumonia. The entertainer first garnered acclaim for his hilarious stand-up comic sets on Def Comedy Jam and, most famously, The Original Kings of Comedy. He would later go on to star in such Hollywood films as Guess Who, Mr. 3000, and the Ocean’s Eleven series. Some would say that his most popular showbiz stint was his sitcom, The Bernie Mac Show, a brutally honest view of a complicated family life.
Bernie Mac may not have been an entertainer who broke new ground. Indeed, he was roaming territory already founded and perfected by Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, and Eddie Murphy. Yet there was no denying how raw, bold, and hysterical an entertainer he was. Mac was the kind of entertainer who would have you hitting the floor with laughter by observing peculiar aspects of everyday life with a viscous raunchiness that made no apologies. Very few comedians of his generation could be so insightful, vulgar, animated, angry, side-splitting, and loveable at the same time. Mac was such a strong stage presence that he eventually made the expected leap into television/films. While most comedians take this leap with the danger of either compromising or inflating their comic personas, Mac was refreshingly true to himself and turned out to be a surprisingly natural screen presence.
Bernard Jeffrey McCullough was born in Chicago, Illinois on October 9th, 1957. Since his high school days, Mac knew he wanted to be a comedian, going so far as to perform in small parks throughout his youth. It was difficult getting started, however, for Mac didn’t come from a great situation. He and his large family lived in one of the rougher neighborhoods of Chicago and his mother, Mary, passed away from Cancer during Bernie’s sophomore year in high school. Throughout his twenties, Mac worked several odd jobs, including furniture mover and sales representative, before finally deciding that he should follow his true passion for comedy. By the time he was 20, Mac had worked comedy club circuits in Chicago and was slowly but steadily building a reputation for himself within the stand-up community.
“I ain’t scared of you motherf-----s!” proclaimed Mac as he took the microphone for the first time on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. He got this big break in the early 90s and right from the start, the audience dug his comedic frankness and raw attitude. Only Mac could grab his crotch while calling himself “blessed” and make it sound sincere. He was also celebrated for his crazy insights, such as sex being “nothing but 50 pumps. Count it if you ain’t got nothing better to do.” Besides being downright hysterical, Mac’s first set also proved to be very creative; employing a DJ to pump music throughout it and rattle the cages of traditional stand-up structures (this set is available on YouTube and will have you in stitches).
Mac became a frequent performer on Def Comedy Jam throughout the 90s and it started opening major doors for him. He received his first movie role as a Club Doorman in Mo Money and HBO gave him his own late-night talk show entitled Midnight Mac (a very short-lived project). Mac gained momentum by taking on several small roles in films throughout the 90s which included House Party 3, Above the Rim, Booty Call, and The Players Club. His most memorable stints during this era was playing the outlandish Pastor Clever from Friday and the dim-witted Jangle Leg from Life.
Then came the film project that made Bernie Mac a household name, The Original Kings of Comedy. The 2000 film saw Spike Lee documenting a stadium comedy show in which Mac, along with fellow comedians Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, and Cedric the Entertainer, performed for a sold out crowd in North Carolina. All of these comedians were undoubtedly in top form for this show, yet it was Mac’s set that really brought the house down. Not only did the audience find Mac’s insights into marital sex, raising kids, and disrespectful relatives hilarious but they also related to it on a deeper level. Mac’s material strongly focused on everyday family topics almost anyone from any race or class could relate to and it was all the more enjoyable due to Mac’s trademark bluntness. As he himself told the audience, “I say the things y’all are afraid to say!” To this day, very few things have made laugh as hard as I did when I first saw Mac’s bit about his stuttering nephew. I laughed so hard I think I stopped breathing for a good two minutes. He gave us one the funniest faces in the history of funny faces for that bit.
Mac received lots of acclaim for his Kings of Comedy set and it bestowed upon him a newfound clout in Hollywood. Mac used this clout to create The Bernie Mac Show for Fox TV. The show is directly based on the Kings of Comedy bit in which Mac talks about adopting and struggling with his sister’s children. Despite concerns from Fox executives, Mac fought to have a family show that was just as raw and honest as his stand-up comedy (Mac to his nephew: “Shut up before I stab you in the throat!”). Despite its harsh frankness, Mac felt audiences would strongly relate to Mac’s struggles with raising difficult children. The show was a success that stayed on the air for five years, winning several awards and landing Mac on TV Guide’s list of the 50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time.
Mac’s newfound popularity also gained him larger roles on the silver screen. He played funny roles in Head of State and Mr. 3000 while also turning in an efficient dramatic performance in Pride. I especially liked him as Bosley in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. I always found Bosley to be a very cool character (since he got to hang out with the Angels all the time) and Mac did him justice in ways I didn’t think was possible. When most comedians grace the silver screen, they find a frustrating need to go way over the top. They figure since they’re playing at a bigger game, they need to make bigger gestures to keep an audience. What was so special about Mac was the way he kept his starring performances more subtle and believable than expected. He was surprisingly restrained in Bad Santa, in which he played a cynical mall manager. The film swam in comic mayhem, giving Mac perfect opportunities to ham it up, yet he is always subdued and patient in his performance, making it all the more effective. This is especially true in Guess Who, in which he plays a successful father wrestling with the fact that his daughter is dating a white man. Not just any white man, but Ashton Kutcher! We’d expect any comedian to ride off the rails while facing off with Kutcher, yet Mac brings a dignity and conviction to his role and cares more about looking like a concerned father than a wacky comedian.
My favorite on-screen work from Mac would have to be from the Ocean’s Eleven series, in which he plays Frank Catton, a casino card dealer and seasoned con man. Ocean’s Eleven is one of my all-time favorite movies, and its small casting choices like Mac’s that help make it such an exceptional film. Compared to the super cool personas of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, Mac’s role would almost appear as disposable comic relief. Yet Mac brought the same amount of style and confidence to his role that the other members of the heist brought, helping to make the crew the coolest cats to ever grace the silver screen. The scene where Mac talks about hand moisturizing to catch a deal from a car salesman not only demonstrates Mac’s comedic talents but also how he has the smarts and finesse to be a slick con man like Mr. Ocean himself.
Before Mac’s death, he had already finished work on two film projects to be released in the next coming months. First up is Soul Men, a musical comedy with Samuel L. Jackson (and, ironically, the recently deceased screen legend Isaac Hayes), and then Old Dogs, a family-themed comedy co-starring John Travolta and Robin Williams. Mac’s films may not have been considered high art, but like the man himself, they knew how to spread joy and entertainment to people from all walks of life. In a time when people relish things that are real and direct, Mac embodied both of those things along with a colorful and charming gift for making people laugh. He was fearless in comedy, films, and reportedly, in death. Mac made us realize that in a time when comedians can be cheap and mediocre, we shouldn’t take brutal honesty and great laughter for granted.
by Brett Parker
What happens when the romantic philosophies of New York Intellectuals clash with the zestful passions of Spanish bohemians? You get Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the new romantic dramedy from Woody Allen. It seems like if he’s not talking about murder and death, Allen is dealing with complications of love and the human heart. This time, he really gets at something deep. It may be a lightweight affair, but it presents profound ideas about our romantic appetites.
The film follows Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), two New Yorkers who travel to Barcelona for a vacation. Vicky is a rather conservative girl who is engaged to a dull yuppie named Doug (Chris Messina) while Cristina is a more adventurous spirit, constantly seeking new suitors and new artistic opportunities to relish. After meeting with old friends and taking in an art show, the girls run into an abstract artist named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardhem). Juan Antonio is a respected artist surrounded by rumors of a violent divorce, in which it’s been said that his ex-wife tried to kill him with a knife. Fascinated by this man, Cristina keeps staring at him across from a restaurant not too long after the art show. Juan Antonio approaches their table and suggests, point blank, that they fly away with him to an exotic city where they can observe art and make love.
Vicky is of course offended by this but Cristina is intrigued by the offer and soon enough Juan Antonio whisks them both away on a jet to a beautiful European city. What follows is a series of romantic episodes and complications as Juan Antonio persuades Vicky into bed, Cristina moves in with Juan Antonio, Vicky’s fiancé unexpectedly turns up, and Juan Antonio’s fiery ex, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) shows up to live with both him and Cristina under the same roof. Allen gives special attention to each character as they march towards these unconventional romantic situations and no emotion is left unfelt.
Fans of Woody Allen will undoubtedly recognize the themes and style they’ve come to love from the New York auteur. Allen once again uses eloquent dialogue and thoughtful characters to explore specific depths of human emotions in a sweet and subtle package. No matter what the material, you can always expect an Allen film to have seasoned actors, a sharp wit, and intelligible dialogue, making Vicky Cristina Barcelona no exception to this cinematic tradition. I call the film lightweight because it lacks the grand significance and creativity of his major works, such as Annie Hall, and it’s not as absorbing or as patient as his better films, such as Cassandra’s Dream.
One thing that really turned me off was the film’s use of voiceover narration. The film has one of those redundant narrations that highlights points to the audience they were strongly capable of figuring out on their own. It doesn’t help matters that the narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) sounds like an ESPN commentator speaking into an old tape recorder from the 80s. Not exactly the type of voice you want representing a tale of Spanish romanticism. Hell, even Allen doing it himself would’ve softened the sting. Also maddening is the fact that the narration hurries us past certain passages we would’ve liked to stay and linger on for a bit. This film would’ve played extremely better without that strange voice explaining everything to us.
All of the performances, especially from the women, are pitch perfect and really help nail the film’s underlying ideas. Yet it’s Javier Bardem’s performance which shines brightest and is the best reason to see this film. On the surface, the character of Juan Antonio seems like an outsized Latin Lover type, but you haven’t seen a Latin Lover until he’s written by Allen and played by Bardem. The details of the character (his frankness, his exotic activities, his seductive power) make him seem like a bit of a caricature, yet Bardem has the right amount of sincerity and charm to make him plausible. The scene where he propositions both traveling and sex to Vicky and Cristina is almost astonishing in the way Bardem says all the right things and hits all the right notes. He is the man.
When all is said and done, there’s a lot to consider about the film’s message. Allen uses the Vicky and Doug subplot, along with another subplot involving married friends of Cristina, to illustrate how a typical American marriage, based around class and societal structure, can be very dull and unfulfilling. By contrast, Juan Antonio’s sense of bohemian passion seems a lot more attractive and correct. However, the film’s ending does a great deal to show how both Juan Antonio and Maria Elena’s indulgence of wild passion is not the healthiest way to go either. At first, it seems like Allen has painted himself into a corner. Then we realize that he’s pointing out how complicated it is to get a handle on the depths of the human heart. Our feelings are constantly flowing and changing like water, so how are we supposed to fine tune it to one specific lifestyle for the rest of our lives? The characters in Vicky Cristina Barcelona try to solve this dilemma by compromising or continuing to indulge in their passions, even though by film’s end it’s obvious that they haven’t really figured it all out.
After Allen wrestled with grand, operatic tragedy with Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, it’s nice to see him play once again on his ideals of romance and relationships. It says something that his lightweight romantic ventures hold more thoughts and ideas than so-called “grand” Hollywood romances. Plus after seeing Javier Bardem terrify and slay countless people in No Country for Old Men, it’s nice to see him charm the pants off of countless ladies in this one. What an actor.
by Brett Parker
It happens all the time: a true-blue indie filmmaker dabbles in mainstream Hollywood fare to keep momentum going for future cash and dependability. It appears to be what David Gordon Green is doing with Pineapple Express. Green is the director of solemn and thoughtful indie fare, such as All the Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels, and now he’s directing a “stoner-action comedy” created by the Judd Apatow gang. Quite a change of pace, right? The funny thing is that although he’s playing with Hollywood formulas here, he’s also giving them the finger at the same time. The funniest thing about the film is the way Green trumps up specific movie clichés and exposes how absurd and ridiculous they really are.
The film follows the misadventures of a court process server named Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) and his spaced-out drug dealer, Saul (James Franco). One day, Dale buys an extremely rare stash of dope from Saul called Pineapple Express. It’s a special blend of marijuana so rare that to smoke it, as Saul observes, would be like “killing a Unicorn!” After buying the weed, Dale smokes it on his way to serve papers to a shady character named Ted Jones (Gary Cole). As Dale pulls up to Ted’s house smoking a joint, he observes Ted and a Female Cop (Rosie Perez) murdering an Asian man from the living room window. Panicked by the situation, Dale tosses the weed and makes a noisy getaway, drawing attention from Ted. Scared and frantic, Dale escapes to Saul’s apartment to sort through the situation. It is realized that Ted is a drug dealer who sold Pineapple Express to Saul through a middleman. So rare is the weed that Ted will undoubtedly realize that whoever witnessed the murder has ties with Saul. Fearing for their lives, Dale and Saul grab some snacks and hit the road.
Stoned and paranoid, the duo tries to figure out a way to save their lives. They would drive far away, but Dale’s car battery dies after a drug-induced trip to the woods. They go to Ted’s middleman, Red (Danny McBride), for information but then quickly discover that he may be assisting in having them both killed. The plot only thickens when Asian drug lords and Dale’s 18-year-old girlfriend (Amber Heard) turn up to create more mischief. If there’s one positive thing to come out of this situation, it’s the realization both Dale and Saul come to that they just might be best friends.
Pineapple Express has everything you could expect from a typical stoner comedy, yet we feel a cinematic grace to the material that we rarely see. Most of the film consists of prolonged, free-flowing scenes of Dale and Saul getting stoned and having lengthy conversations. Green seems to take a special interest in this dialogue, for he hangs the camera on it and gives it a late-60’s Easy Rider vibe that makes these scenes feel more important than they really are. They may be lengthy, but we truly enjoy these scenes because of the nice comic timing between Rogen and Franco. We expect Rogen to be hilariously competent in this kind of role, yet it’s Franco who is surprisingly funny and convincing as Saul. Franco is known for mostly dramatic roles (notably Harry in the Spider-Man films) and is probably the last person you’d expect to play a zany pothead. He owns the role, with his long hair and pajama pants, and gives the funniest performance in the film. He creates a cinematic stoner for the ages that can stand with Cheech and Chong.
The film contains so many familiar Hollywood themes such as drugs, car chases, shoot-outs, fist fights, romantic declarations, and buddy humor. Yet Green puts such a silly comic spin on everything to show just how buffoonish these conventions can be. Take for example the film’s final shootout, where Dale and Saul are trapped in a drug lair with both Ted’s gang and the Asian drug lords. Dale and Saul attempt to beat people up and fire weapons, yet they do it so poorly and pathetically that it makes us realize just how crazy it is how in countless action pictures, Everyday Joe’s can suddenly turn into Rambo. Dale’s fistfight with Ted looks like two schoolgirls trying to smack each other while Saul can’t properly handle a gun to save his life. Quentin Tarantino tried a similar strategy with Kill Bill, highlighting the goofiness of his grind house action to let his audience in on the fun and silliness of it all. Yet while we felt Tarantino laughed with his material, we feel Green is laughing at his.
Pineapple Express isn’t exactly the comedy classic you’d expect it to be. I wish it was a lot funnier, and I wish it played around with its bigger ideas a little more. In terms of being a Judd Apatow project, it has all the usual laughs and ideals of male bonding we’ve come to expect and enjoy from his work. Of course, the material is elevated this time by Franco’s performance and Green’s surprising direction. It’s rare to see a film in this genre filmed with such graceful and dignified technical skill. This could very well be the best looking stoner comedy ever made.
by Brett Parker
There are certain things I wouldn’t necessarily expect to see in a coming-of-age teen flick. Things like a teen being a successful pot dealer, or a teen doing drugs with his therapist, or a soundtrack made up of wonderful rap and hip-hop, or a sex scene that rivals Atonement in the steaminess department, or a teen rescuing an adult from crippling angst and not vice-versa. For that matter, I wouldn’t expect any film to have Sir Ben Kingsley quote the Notorious B.I.G. while giving advice to a younger man.
All of these things can be found in The Wackness and they help make it one of the most realistic and enjoyable teen dramadies to come along in recent memory. There’s truly nothing in this film you haven’t seen done in countless other films, yet rarely has it been done with such honesty, wisdom, and hilarity. It never condescends to melodrama, but keeps things grounded in the real world, taking in the good, the bad, and the hilarious. If nothing else, we can’t remember the last time a film like this was so well-acted…or so damn funny!
The film takes place in 1994 New York City (you know you’re getting old when 1994 is considered a nostalgic era). Manhattan teen Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) has just graduated high school yet is filled with angst and uncertainty about his future. He spends his days peddling marijuana from a beaten-up ice cream vender he pushes around the city. Trying to get a handle on things, he pays a psychiatrist named Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) in weed to have him listen to his depressed thoughts. As it turns out, Squires is just as anxious and depressed as Luke is. He’s trapped in a thankless marriage and a boring job while constantly wondering where the excitement of his youth has gone. He almost sees some of it in Luke, if only the kid could overcome his angst. Pretty soon, these two lost souls begin a sort of peculiar friendship in which they bounce deep thoughts off each other and try to push themselves through the challenges of everyday life.
Things take an interesting turn when it’s discovered that Dr. Squires is the stepfather of Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), one of Josh’s classmates. Josh has had a crush on Stephanie for the longest time, yet Stephanie has only accepted him as the class pot dealer. After catching word of his strange friendship with her stepfather, Stephanie decides to see what Josh is all about and begins hanging out with him. Pretty soon, an attraction grows and the two teens embark on young love, giving Josh a happy new outlook on life. Yet Squires, suffering from romantic disappointments himself, warns Josh of the hazards of dating young women and tries to prepare him for it. This turns out to be a wise decision, for Stephanie may not be feeling the relationship as much as Josh is.
As far as teen movies go, this is one of the most observant and sincere ones I’ve ever seen. The relationship between Josh and Stephanie is not played for laughs or formula but instead resembles what a teen relationship would actually look like. What happens between them, and how Josh handles it in the end, shows more intelligence and maturity than most youthful romances of today. And I can’t tell you how much I loved and appreciated the hip-hop soundtrack. Most teen films are plagued with disposable songs by pop-punk rockers no real teenager would truly listen to. I can’t vouch for all people of my generation, but when I was in high school, we listened to Biggie, A Tribe Called Quest, Mary J. Blidge, etc. Most teen flicks shortchange us on hip-hop yet it is in full, beautiful swing in The Wackness, making for a refreshing and sublime score. I hope future filmmakers take note of this musical epiphany.
Aside from being an effective teen story, the film is also a tale of adult disappointment and male bonding. The role of the pot-smoking, sex starved Dr. Squires provides the perfect opportunity for Ben Kingsley to go over-the-top. But as he proved in Sexy Beast, You Kill Me, and Oliver Twist, he knows how to keep outsized characters subtle and convincing. He sells every wild aspect of the role and paints a unique portrait of adult anxiety almost anyone can empathize with. As wonderful as The Wackness is with all of its plotlines, the most involving one deals with male friendship. The best and funniest scenes are when Luke and Squires philosophize on life’s mysteries together. Many emotional curveballs are thrown in their individual paths and I was touched by the way their relationship encourages each other to keep fighting through their messy lives. The film has a great ear for the way men talk with each other, usually in free-flowing speeches of never-ending philosophical matters, constantly bouncing around and searching for divine truth. There’s a wonderful scene in the end where Josh shouts thoughtful wisdom at Squires in an attempt to keep him from walking into the ocean. Writer/Director Jonathan Levine wisely makes saving a friendship feel more dramatic than saving a romantic relationship.
The Wackness may not be the most original film, yet its one of those rare films overflowing with moments you can’t help but love. I loved the moment where Luke and Squires attempt to escape from cops who catch them smoking weed (a scene that provides the funniest Forrest Gump reference I’ve ever seen). I loved the way Luke lights up a sidewalk like Michael Jackson after his first kiss with Stephanie. I loved the moment where Luke tells his family what he wants to do with the rest of his life. And you can’t help but love the performances by Peck and Thirlby, who make their characters so raw and cool that they put most young actors to serious shame. These two have huge futures ahead of them as far as I’m concerned.
It seems like every summer a small indie gem shines through in the crowded blockbuster season. Past titles like Garden State and Once come to mind. Even though this is one of the best seasons for summer blockbusters we’ve seen in a long time, The Wackness is still worth seeking out if you can find a theatre lucky enough to be showing it. You can only see The Dark Knight so many times before you feel like trying something new and enjoyable. Think of this film as the tasty cherry on top of the grand and delicious hot fudge sundae that is the 2008 summer movie season.
by Brett Parker
Bud Johnson, the reluctant hero of Swing Vote, is an unintelligent man who seems incapable of any intellectual thought. The only two subjects he seems to care about are drinking and his 9-year-old-daughter (it says something that she has far more brains and character than he does). Through an astonishing dealing of the fates, Bud becomes the sole decider of who will become the very next President of the United States. It is his decision and his decision only. A situation like that would make even the simplest person ask complex questions about the choice at hand, yet so dimwitted is Bud that he never takes it seriously or shares any deep thoughts about what he’s thinking. His clueless nature is kind of annoying. The fact that the film acknowledges his idiocy and that Kevin Costner portrays him so convincingly makes spending an entire movie with Bud less maddening than it probably should be.
Bud is a lowlife alcoholic for reasons never fully highlighted. He lives in a trailer with his daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), and works a dead-end job at an egg factory. Bud and Molly care greatly about each other yet are confused by each other’s ideals. Molly is frustrated with Bud’s drinking and laziness while Bud is baffled by Molly’s fascination with politics. Molly not only writes a college-worthy class presentation on the importance of voting but also wants Bud to show up at the polls on Election Day and exercise his civil right to vote. When the big day finally arrives, Bud gets fired from his job at the egg factory and goes on an all night bender, drinking himself into a coma. Frustrated and desperate, Molly decides to sneak into the polls herself and cast her father’s ballot without him. An electrical glitch causes an accident with the computerized poll and Bud’s vote is not officially counted.
As the votes are counted, something unbelievable happens: both of the presidential candidates are evenly tied for the election. The government discovers the mishap over Bud’s vote and, by law, he is allowed to re-cast it. Only this time, his single vote will ultimately send one of the candidates straight to the presidency. This is a seemingly dangerous situation, for Bud not only lacks any political thoughts but doesn’t even know who the candidates are. This causes current Republican President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammar) and Democratic Nominee Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) to invade Bud’s life and persuade him towards a decision, even if it means compromising their own values.
In the movie Rain Man, you kept feeling for the autistic Raymond character so much that you kind of wished he’d snap out of his condition and make all the other characters happier. I had a similar feeling for Bud during Swing Vote, yet there was more impatience and frustration this time. Its established right from the get go that Bud is lazy and moronic. Understood. Yet Bud is so lazy and stupid that he is constantly oblivious to the weight of his own situation. Here’s a guy who becomes swarmed by every media outlet on the planet, and it barely fazes him. Here’s a guy who is wined, dined, and lectured by two presidential candidates, and he has nothing of any importance to say to them. No questions, concerns, nothing. Bud’s nihilism is astonishing.
The problem is that Bud’s nature is never fully explained. Sure, he’s divorced, poor, and never caught a lucky break in life, yet so strange is his detachment that we chalk these up as minor excuses. We truly wonder just what the hell is going on in this guy’s head. I’ve heard arguments that Bud is meant to represent the political carelessness and unintelligible ideals of most American voters, yet any American with half-a-brain would do way more with this situation than Bud does. Perhaps if Bud was painted more as a sincere political bystander, like John Goodman in King Ralph, or even a justified neutral oaf, like Hugh Grant in About A Boy, then the filmmaker’s ideas would probably fly stronger.
Despite Bud being underwritten, the film is effective most of the time. In a time when moviegoers seem to be hung up on cynicism and realism, it’s nice to see a Capra-esque fantasy able to stand. The film finds a nice balance between heartfelt fantasy and realistic commentary. What is considerably missing is big laughs and thoughtful dialogue. It was hard for me to watch this film without thinking of Tin Cup, another movie in which Kevin Costner plays a slobbish loser who takes on a grand situation to please someone he cares about. That was a great film that knew how to use dialogue to unearth the humor of the situation and the passionate ideals of the characters. The film had an amusing wordplay in which characters would humorously bounce their thoughts and ideas off each other, highlighting their unique feelings and personalities. The characters in Swing Vote look colorful and interesting, yet we miss out on the kind of dialogue and humor that could really flesh them out and allow us to care about them more.
In recent years, it seems like Kevin Costner has become a whipping boy for bad acting and pretentious Hollywood vanity. I’ve always felt that Costner is no different than any other movie star, he has his hits and he has his misses. He displayed true talent in The Untouchables, Bull Durham, and The Upside of Anger while he proved to be hopeless in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Postman, and For Love of the Game. He seems more at home playing down-to-earth everymen as opposed to outsized romantic heroes. Despite the character flaws, Costner completely inhabits the role of Bud and is convincing more so than usual. There’s no winking or higher knowing outside of the character; Costner nails every groan, tick, and hangover. Bud may be a shaky character, but it’s no fault of Costner’s. Even as Bud delivers a heartfelt speech towards the end that holds more depth and ideals than he’s had for the entire movie, we buy it and it damn near redeems the shaky script.
I was really back and forth on whether of not to recommend Swing Vote. I clearly had issues with it. However, I had a strange admiration for the performances (especially Costner’s) and the film’s overall messages. In these disillusioning times, it’s nice to see a film promote standing up for what’s right and searching for political integrity in these crazy times. The film doesn’t insult the intelligence of political braniacs nor does it condescend simple-minded moviegoers. It’s more plausible and observant than its premise would allow you to think. Plus, I found true hope in the film’s final thought: if a human mess like Bud Johnson can stand up and make a change, there’s no telling what the rest of the American voters can do!