FILM REVIEW – SWING STATE. With Alex Beh, Elaine Hendrix, Billy Zane, Taryn Manning, Sean Astin. Written and directed by Jonathan Sheldon. Rated R for language including sexual references, and some drug use. 95 minutes.
As we enter the Age of Trump, movies about politics are going to reflect the divisiveness of the times. The problem for fimmakers is, first, whether to take sides, and second, whether to play it as comedy or drama.
SWING STATE (available on iTunes, Amazon, and VOD) goes for light and broad comedy, while mocking both sides. If anyone’s the heavy here, it’s the media corporation which makes huge profits by pandering to the fears and prejudices of their rightwing audiences. Let’s be honest here: personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity thrive on the gullibility and ignorance of their listeners. There’s some of that on the Left–see, for example, the people who support Jill Stein–but when it comes to talk radio, it’s decidedly one-sided.
Alex Beh plays Ethan Smith, who works at a progressive radio station and is constantly in debt. One day, the right-wing host of a show on the station down the hall falls ill, and Smith–thinking it will be easy money–agrees to fill in as “Charles Fern.” Fern is a cartoonish version of a right-wing talk host, making Stephen Colbert’s character on “The Colbert Report” seem subtle and understated. He insults listeners, endorses “intelligent design,” praises right-wing author Ann Alcott (Elaine Hendrix) for her latest book, “A Brief History of Liars: From Hitler to Hillary,” and, naturally, becomes a sensation.
What ensues is what one would expect from a comic setup in which someone pretends to be someone he is not: he finds himself in a series of situations where his lie might be exposed, including an ex-girlfriend who’s a radical journalist and a current girlfriend whose mother is the Democratic candidate for governor. All of the right-wingers are presented as clowns, but only the ex-girlfriend (Taryn Manning) is presented as an example of the extremism of the Left. And since she figures out the double life her ex is leading, she’s not exactly irrational.
Beh is likeable as the radio personality with the secret identity, but the script is too lightweight to score many points. Indeed, the plot is a cousin to “Mrs. Doubtfire,” where we await the moment when the protagonist’s secret is finally exposed. Writer/director Jonathan Sheldon would have been better off not playing at being evenhanded and instead trying to draw some blood. With a real life president-elect who seems to believe that the truth is whatever he says it is, the satire here seems tame.
That’s not to say it’s totally without its moments. Fern reciting a poem against evolution is good for a laugh, as well as his scenes with the conservative Republican governor (Billy Zane) who takes him out hunting. “Swing State” is political comedy for those who don’t want to be challenged or upset, but only want a chance to laugh at the foolishness too often on display in the real world. It’s not the fimmaker’s fault if reality has turned out to be even more bizarre than he could have possibly imagined.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.