It must be a horrible, wonderful thing to be a movie star in this modern age -- rewarded and yet tightly caged by the public's perception of you. Stay within the expectations of the ticket-buying public, and you're likely (or, more accurately, more likely) to not fall off the public's radar; at the same time, that gilded cage must, at some point, feel more and more like a prison. I mention this in talking about Swing Vote because Kevin Costner manages a somewhat nifty trick in his performance as Bud Johnston, a New Mexico ne'er-do-well who, thanks to a close-fought election and a voting machine error, gets to pick the next president. Oh, sure, we all do that on voting day -- but, due to a electoral college tie and a tie in New Mexico, it turns out Bud's vote will be the deciding one. For, well, everyone. Before this is established by Jason Richman and Joshua Michael Stern's screenplay, though, we get a sense of Bud -- and, at first, Bud seems like another in a long line of Kevin Costner likable rascals from Bull Durham's Crash Davis to Tin Cup's Roy MacAvoy. But Bud is something more interesting -- a man whose charm can't quite cover up the holes in his soul. Bud's a drunkard. Bud's lazy. And if it weren't for his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll), Bud would be even more adrift and frayed. Early, Bud tells his civic-minded daughter that " ... voting doesn't count for a goddamn thing." Bud's the kind of guy who's wrong a lot -- and he knows it -- but, thanks to the gentle contortions of Swing Vote's plot, never more so than now.

The modern political comedy falls into one of two extremes; either it's a bland bore with no actual politics in it that makes you want to fall asleep (Welcome to Moosewood, My Fellow Americans) or a bleak blunt satire that makes you want to slit your wrists (Wag the Dog, Thank You For Smoking). In our divided, focus-grouped age where politics is, to flip von Clausewitz, the continuation of war by other means, most political comedies either skip any real ideas in the name of making money ("Ha! The president fell down!") or go for the jugular on their way to the poorhouse. But Swing Vote doesn't play like that; it has a little of the warm grace we associate with the films of Frank Capra, but it also remembers that in Capra's fables of the common man, there were stakes on the table, too. While the scenario required to make the plot work seems unlikely, it's also a nice reduction of the way modern campaigns work; Bud is Florida, or Michigan, or Ohio, or any "battleground state" in a ball cap, and resources and attention are lavished on him as enthusiastically and disproportionately they are on those states.

Ambitious local reporter Kate Madison (Paula Patton) breaks the story; she sees covering Bud's new role as the slightly out-of-shape body politic as her ticket to the big time. Soon after, Republican incumbent Boone (Kelsey Grammer, hitting nice notes of affable vacuity) comes to Bud's hometown of Texico, New Mexico, with his campaign strategist Martin Fox (Stanley Tucci) in tow, as does Democratic challenger Dickie Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper, hitting nice notes of stiff chillness) and his main strategist Art Crumb (Nathan Lane). Lane and Tucci are both caricatures -- political sharks with a bon mot or bad idea always close at hand -- and yet, they make the characters work. Tucci's snarled order on the last day before the vote to "Run the gay marriage ad every 20 minutes; let's see if we can get those God-fearing bastards off the fence. ..." tells you where Swing Vote wants to hit; in the hard-to-find sweet spot between mean and funny.

Director Joshua Michael Stern also deserves credit for making Texico feel like a place -- racially diverse, neighborly and claustrophobic, with a few jobs left at the egg packing plant and plenty of "Going out of business!" signs on the main drag. The camerawork is either long and leisurely -- giving Bud and Molly room to fuss and feud and argue -- or jangling with the rush and crush of events. While the heavy-handed use of real political commentators is a bit tiresome -- I think Chris Matthews has been in more movies in the past five years than Gene Hackman -- the nice touches of real-life celebrities enlisted to sway Bud's vote gets a laugh both times. Bud (of course) lets things go to his head, leading Molly to see him as an ass; the film first takes a nice sidestep to remind Bud of the things that really matter, and then gives us a big speech from Bud that not only manages to convey true humility, sincerity and repentance but also makes a nice nod to Miracle on 34th Street. Costner's not using the ringing tones of his jury summation from JFK or the polished pep of his famed credo from Bull Durham here; instead, he's sad and ashamed and direct, capturing the tone and sound of a man forced to be honest with himself, in public, for the first time in a long time.

Swing Vote
ends just as you would expect, which is also just as you would want it to. The film's plot-starting deadlock seems like a stretch, sure, but when you consider that modern surveying and redistricting software has re-drawn some Congressional districts so that their boundaries leap and twist in the name of preserving the legislative majorities who get to define them, it doesn't seem like that much of one. A more vicious film would have shown us Bud running the panderers on either side of him against each other with beady-eyed greed; at the same time, Bud's more Michelob than Machiavelli, and that makes it easy to like him. And there are funny, bluntly cynical moments in Swing Vote, with ads specifically tailored to appeal to Bud's stance (or what's perceived to be Bud's stance, with campaign staff on both sides sifting his bar talk and vocalized mis-steps like they were the pronouncements of the oracle) on abortion and immigration that manage to be over-the-top and still impressively plausible. Several characters in Swing Vote, in fact, take the opportunity to do the right thing when you'd least expect it (or, at least, do the right wrong thing at the right time, which is almost as good.) Eventually, Bud has to come to grips with the fact that wanting to have it both ways is not the same as keeping an open mind, crack the books (with plenty of coaching) and do what he thinks is right; there are worse lessons to have up on America's movie screens less than 100 days before an election. Swing Vote isn't going to be remembered as the best political comedy of our time (Ivan Reitman's wacky-but-warm Dave still holds that position) but it's not a bad showcase for Costner, and its heart and brain are both in something close to the right place.