My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
It’s not easy for a man who is rich, famous, handsome, and a bona fide movie star to also be a giant dork, but somehow Kevin Costner manages it. The onscreen Costner has a number of defining moments, perhaps none bigger than his epic attention-demanding monologue in Bull Durham. But the defining moment of the offscreen Costner is probably that wonderful moment in Madonna: Truth Or Dare when he comes backstage after one of her orgiastic performances and opines that it was “neat.”
This was Costner in miniature: When confronted with one of the preeminent sex goddesses of her era at her prime, he doled out a wholesome compliment more appropriate for a 6-year-old boy geeking out about the bike he found under the Christmas tree. While the rest of show-business spent the 1980s fucking their brains out while doing mountains of blow, it’s easy to imagine Costner staying at home at night attending to his stamp collection or reading up on advances in renewable energy. Costner is sincere and earnest and dad-like in ways that are both endearing and embarrassing.
In a cynical, pragmatic Hollywood, Costner is a true believer, an old-school liberal who has never been afraid to buck Hollywood tradition, and conventional wisdom, and invest his own personal fortune in movies that he believes in. He was so invested in Dances With Wolves that when the budget went over, he added millions of his own dollars to cover it.
And when he wasn’t able to secure funding for Swing Vote to get it into theaters in time for the 2008 presidential election, he helped fund it himself. That represented an enormous gamble, and while he made a small fortune off Dances With Wolves, Costner lost a small fortune on Swing Vote, which garnered mediocre reviews and meager box office. It was less a comeback vehicle than further evidence of a steep, perhaps permanent, professional decline.
Swing Vote takes place in what politicians like to condescendingly refer to as the “real America.” This is a wonderland where real Americans wear denim ensembles and have unflattering soul patches and drive pickup trucks to real bars where they get drunk on cheap domestic beer: Budweiser, specifically. There is so much Budweiser in the movie that it’s surprising Costner couldn’t fund the film entirely through product placement of just that one product.
So it doesn’t seem at all coincidental that Costner’s character is nicknamed “Bud” Johnson, a theoretically lovable loser content to drift drunkenly through life, oblivious and indifferent to the pain and hurt his addiction and selfishness are causing his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll). Like many children who grow up in chaos, Molly has coped with her father’s self-absorption and drunkenness by becoming a smart, hyper-driven, freakishly precocious overachiever.
She’s essentially a parent to her man-child of a dad, and seemingly the only thing keeping him from sliding into the gutter permanently. If that seems harsh, it’s because we know far too much about addiction, particularly the way addiction affects children, for the amiable drunk to be palatable anymore. Where the film wants us to see Bud as a fundamentally good-hearted if shiftless ne’er-do-well—all rough edges, beer binges, and inappropriate cussing—he instead comes off as a thoughtless alcoholic rapidly approaching his bottom.
Bud represents an archetype in the Frank Capra movies Swing Vote borrows from extensively: the eccentric everyman elevated to great, unearned heights (Meet John Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town) who then must wrestle with the complications of life among the cultural elites. Costner is an idealized American everyman like Gary Cooper and James Stewart. Kevin Costner isn’t the most talented or popular American actor, but he may be our most American. Costner bleeds red, white, and blue. He’s westerns. He’s baseball. He’s blue skies. He’s Superman’s dad. Yet Costner never quite pulls off drunken and dissolute here. The cans of Budweiser Bud he’s forever clutching feel like props to be held, not alcohol to be consumed. But if Bud’s drunkenness never feels convincing or real, the harm he’s causing his daughter registers far too strongly for Bud to be as likable as he’s meant to be.
Bud begins the movie just barely getting by. He works at an egg factory where he and his similarly soul-patched co-workers (most notably Judge Reinhold, going full-on Southern working-class gentleman) seem to spend their days cos-playing Blue Collar Comedy Tour. But after coming in late and hungover every day, missing 31 sick days (due to his life- and family-destroying addiction to alcohol), and some slapstick shenanigans that result in the destruction of countless eggs, Bud is finally laid off.
Our shiftless antihero responds the way he responds to everything: getting drunk and ignoring his responsibilities as a father. Bud has assured his civic-minded daughter that he would vote but in this, as in all things, he fails. Molly ends up attempting to vote on her father’s behalf in what can only be deemed an adorable act of clear-cut voter fraud.
The electricity in the polling place where Molly is furtively voting shuts off before she’s able to complete her vote on her old man’s behalf. When it is determined that the presidential race is in a dead heat, Bud, an unrepentant goober who’s never been able to handle any responsibility, suddenly finds himself with the most important responsibility in the world: It falls upon him to cast the deciding vote in the presidential race. Bud’s vote alone will determine whether Republican incumbent President Andrew “Andy” Boone (Kelsey Grammer) or Democratic challenger Donald “Don” Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) will be elected president.
Bud is given 10 days to make the decision. Overnight, a sleepy little small town in New Mexico becomes the unlikely epicenter of the American political universe. Both candidates, their campaigns, and their supporters descend upon Bud’s hometown to try to convince him to vote for their candidate. An unassuming fuck-up comfortable with possessing no power at all suddenly finds himself with a surreal excess of power.
Costner is famously a liberal and Hopper and Grammer are equally notable conservative Republicans; they’ve come together to make a film as toothlessly bipartisan as a Jay Leno monologue. Swing Vote mildly, genially razzes both parties as being full of desperate political opportunists willing to sell out their ideals and beliefs for the sake of assuming power before asserting that these guys are fundamentally good dudes after all. Politics might be crazy, but isn’t American democracy great?
In their desperation to win the only vote that matters, the president and his challenger cynically reverse their policies. When Bud stumblingly answers a reporter’s question on whether he’s pro-life or pro-choice by asserting that he’s “pro-life” in the sense that he is in favor of life as a concept (unrelated to terminating pregnancies, because Bud apparently doesn’t know what “pro-life” means), the pro-choice party/politician cynically cuts an anti-abortion ad with children disappearing from a playground.
Similarly, Bud answers a question about gay marriage by asserting that it’s everybody’s right to do whatever the hell they want in the privacy of their own bedroom. The party of protecting traditional marriage suddenly becomes the party of gay marriage, complete with a commercial where the president is joined by a collection of all-American archetypes lispingly vowing, “I do.”
The notion that both of these candidates would dramatically go against their party’s core beliefs for the sake of winning Bud’s vote is reasonably clever even if it never rises to the level of satire, but that’s as edgy as Swing Vote gets. The film is so intent on not offending anyone that it eschews social commentary altogether. It would be nice if the movie ultimately said anything, really, beyond encouraging audiences to vote and be invested and involved in the political process, whatever their leanings.
Both parties shamelessly bribe and flatter Bud to win his vote. The president invites Bud onboard Air Force One for a beer, while the challenger ropes Bud’s personal hero Willie Nelson into his campaign to win Bud’s vote. Bud is ecstatic at being feted like a big shot after a lifetime of being an exceedingly modest failure, but Molly watches the whole ridiculous parade with a look of stern, tight-lipped judgment. Bud’s genuine love for his daughter may be his sole redeeming facet, but the look of disappointment in her eyes whenever she contemplates her worthless old man somehow isn’t enough to get him to put down the bottle and grow up.
Initially, everyone is tickled silly by Bud’s everyman brashness and foul mouth. He’s like Ken Bone, who instantly won everyone’s heart with the unexpected role he ended up playing in a presidential campaign. Then, because the third act needs tension and drama, everyone turns on Bud and decides he’s actually a creep they don’t like, as was similarly the case with Ken Bone.
One minute NASCAR driver Richard Petty is taking an overjoyed Bud for a joyride. The next, Bill Maher is calling Bud a dumbass on TV to the cheers of a populace that has suddenly turned on Bud. He’s now seen as a dope who’s wasting everyone’s time attending to his 15 minutes of fame, instead of focusing on his job determining the leader of the free world.
Bud’s redemptive arc calls for him to finally stop fucking around and take his responsibilities seriously. So Costner-as-Bud finally listens to his daughter and asks for a final presidential debate solely for him. Bud begins his private debate the way moderators generally do: with a lengthy, heartfelt monologue, full of actor-friendly moments and overflowing with emotion, in which a suddenly chastened everyman reflects upon a lifetime of poor choices and squandered potential as well as his determination to be a better man for both his daughter and his country.
It’s not a bad speech, for what it is, but it makes no sense within the context of the film. This debate is not about him. Furthermore, Bud is a man of few words and even less thought, but when the film demands it, he suddenly turns self-reflective and even wise, blessed with the wisdom of the common man.
The closing monologue exists for Costner’s ego, to give him one last huge opportunity to flamboyantly act out his character’s redemption. If Swing Vote is a hit, it goes alongside his big monologue in Bull Durham as one of his iconic, definitive moments. Instead, it just rings hollow as a big, swing-for-the-fences moment the film does little to earn or work toward.
Although on an emotional and storytelling level, Swing Vote does not work, there is still much to recommend it. Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut gives the film a sun-dappled, political-ad radiance that makes the film’s cornball Americana easy on the eyes at the very least. Director Joshua Michael Stern is adept at giving the film a real sense of scope, conveying that this is a story that is happening throughout the nation, not just to one overwhelmed man. It’s easy to see how people might read the script or look at the beautiful dailies and think they had something special on their hands, but Swing Vote ultimately realizes very little of its extraordinary potential. It wants to be great but settles for being inoffensive.
As producer, star, and financier, Costner lovingly sought to make a big-hearted comedy-drama about the madness and majesty of presidential politics and American life in the vein of alternately cynical and achingly sincere Capra comedy-dramas. Instead, he made a gorgeous, vaguely epic but fundamentally empty and toothless mediocrity: essentially a “Get Out The Vote!” bumper sticker in cinematic form.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco