Ever noticed how precocious, pre-adolescent girls in films are always decidedly smarter, more ambitious, and more mature than their underachieving dads? Movies love to tell us kids have the wisdom that adults lack. Well, maybe a few kids should have told their parentals who are executives at Touchstone that it’s risky opening a film that features a father-daughter relationship in the middle of the summer when superheroes, mummies, and teen comedies generally rule the box office. Moviegoers elected to buy only $16 million in admissions to Swing Vote — only about half the gross Paper Moon collected 35 years earlier when tickets were cheaper. Of more pressing concern is whether this recent Kevin Costner flick holds its own to what many consider to be a classic of this particular sub-genre. Can Costner get the votes he needs, or will Ryan and Tatum O’Neal con their way to a win?
In Swing Vote, Kevin Costner stars as Bud Johnson, a simple guy who pretty much coasts through life with virtually no ambition or sense of responsibility. After all, what else would you expect from an egg processing plant worker who loses his job to “insourcing?” Unemployed, unmotivated, and uninformed, there are three things Bud does love — the King of Beer, the King of Nascar, and his precocious, over-achieving twelve-year-old daughter, Molly. Costner teams with young Madeline Carroll in this Capra-esque tale of the importance of everyman’s vote. Ms. Carroll is exceptional in her role, and the star-studded supporting cast all contribute to an engaging, timely, thought-provoking film. Credit must go to writers Joshua Michael Stern (who also directed) and Jason Richman for a screenplay that is better than one might expect, although it requires a serious suspension of disbelief on several occasions. Propelled by the Marshall Tucker Band’s driving beat of “Can’t You See,” the amusing, improbable chain of events which culminates in a presidential election coming down to one single vote in a little two-bit town on Route 66 succeeds in entertaining the electorate.
The Defending Champion
Based on Joe David Brown’s novel Addie Pray, screenwriter Alvin Sargent and director Peter Bogdanovich bring to the silver screen, in glorious black & white, a brilliant, bittersweet, and thoroughly entertaining comedy/drama set in the midst of the Great Depression. There’s nothing depressing here. Real-life father-daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal forge an unlikely partnership selling overpriced Bibles to unwitting widows, and while they may be viewed as morally unsavory characters for their rather unscrupulous deeds, one cannot help but cheer them on. Tatum’s performance is especially memorable, winning her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the tender age of 10 years, 153 days — the youngest performer to win in Academy history.
Also noteworthy was the high-contrast, extreme depth-of-field cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs, Bogdanovich’s long, uninterrupted takes which lets the fast-paced, snappy dialogue shine without resorting to conventional cutting techniques, and the exclusive use of actual period tunes from the personal collection of Rudi Fehr heard only when one of the characters is listening to a radio. Yep, no music score wanted or needed as Bogdanovich rightfully feared having one might interrupt the carefully crafted blend of images and dialogue that effectively and efficiently present a classic, heartwarming, and poignant story.
Both films are well cast. In fact, it is almost impossible to imagine anyone other than Ryan and Tatum O’Neal being the leads in Paper Moon. Throw in Madeline Kahn’s unforgettable portrayal of one Ms. Trixie Delight, and you have a winning trifecta to be sure.
Costner’s performance in Swing Vote is very good, although I couldn’t help but think that this role might be more appropriate for Billy Bob Thornton. Young Madeline Carroll, however, is absolutely fantastic, and the supporting cast, which includes Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci, Judge Reinhold, George Lopez, Richard Petty, Ariana Huffington and Willie Nelson, among many others, combine to keep things moving.
Storywise, both films entertain and even manage to make a statement or two about the human condition, whether it be during the Great Depression of the early 1930s or now, just before America enters what could be the Greater Depression. With the extraordinary craftsmanship which went into the making of Paper Moon — the cinematography, editing, production design being especially noteworthy — Bogdanovich’s film has withstood the test of time. Will Swing Vote?
Swing Vote contains a number of especially humorous moments. For example, when 12-year old Molly sneaks off into the night, Bud screams at one of the many secret service agents on hand as to how such a thing could happen. “You guys protect presidents, for God’s sake!” The immediate, no-nonsense reply, “She’s smarter.” There’s no doubt that Madeline Carroll’s winning portrayal of young Molly Johnson makes Swing Vote a worthy challenger. Her spunk and persistence make Bud wiser in the ways of social and civic responsibility. And us wiser, too.
Paper Moon is the more ambitious and cinematic film, helmed by a talented director who was at the top of his game. All aspects of the cinematic art were beautifully blended in a way that thoughtfully examines family relationships by slyly questioning the degree to which we will do anything to take care of our own. Simply put, this film was, is, and will continue to be a classic. Accordingly, we have a winner: Paper Moon.
Yes, Moon shines!
(Whatever happened to Bible salesmen?)