Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay by Alexander Payne, based on the novel by
Starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon
Rated R, 103 minutes. (1999)
I suppose there are a few explanations for why Election
has been getting only a so-so reception from the public, despite
the fact that it's a pretty good film and has received mostly
positive reviews. For one thing, while it's ostensibly about
high school, it's really a movie for adults, so it's been
difficult to market. In addition, summer is kiddie-pic time,
not the best environment for dark, subtle satire. Then there's
the title: people are already tired of the year 2000 presidential
race (17 months and counting), so who wants to see a movie
Well, I did, and I enjoyed it, though it presents a fairly
bleak view not just of high school and the world of politics
(the two are remarkably similar) but of human nature in general.
The audience I saw it with, however, didn't just not like
it - they actively hated it. "I can't believe they gave
that four stars," was a typical exiting comment
I overheard. Why all the hostility?
Election takes place at a big high school in Omaha.
Matthew Broderick plays the kind of caring, dedicated teacher
parents love and most kids like, or at least tolerate. Hyper-perky
Reese Witherspoon is the workaholic overachiever Tracy Flick,
who has been running for student body president since, oh,
the first day of kindergarten. (Think Al Gore with a snub
nose and blonde hair.)
Broderick decides, in the interests of democracy, that the
election should actually be a contest, so he enlists an earnest,
cute-but-dumb jock (Chris Klein), who has been sidelined from
the football team by a skiing accident, to run against Tracy.
Think Bill Bradley minus about 40 IQ points.
The Ross Perot-like third candidate - and the only one who
realizes that student body president elections are idiotic
- is the jock's sister, played by Jessica Campbell, who has
her own personal reasons for wanting to throw a monkey wrench
into her brother's candidacy.
None of these parallels are forced, by the way. Election
is a satire but it achieves its effects with deadpan direction
and kitchen-sink realistic visuals. This is no candy-colored
The election itself really just sets the stage for a series
of pleasantly surprising plot twists. The script is intelligent,
the direction, by Alexander Payne, is sure-footed, and the
acting is consistently good and, in some cases excellent.
It's no surprise that Broderick does well playing the type
of earnest teacher his carefree Ferris Bueller would have
made mincemeat of. He also doesn't flinch from showing his
(and the character's) age, with a little gray at the temples
and a slight paunch.
In addition, Witherspoon is delightfully funny as the driven
demon with the angelic smile. (She also gave virtually the
only non-catatonic performance in the dull-but-earnest Pleasantville.
If she gets a crack at a few Christina Ricci-like roles, she
could easily become an independent-film darling or maybe just
a big movie star.)
So again, why the hostility towards this movie? I think there
are three reasons, the biggest of which is not the film's
One: At first, Election seems misogynistic, until
you realize that while the women are portrayed as frumps,
cockteasers and cold, vengeful sluts, the men don't come off
any better. Payne assembles quite a collection of schmucks,
dupes, dolts and self-important windbags. Broderick seems
to be an exception - while his actions aren't admirable, his
desire to foil goody-goody Tracy Flick is at least understandable
- until you realize that he's the most deluded one of the
bunch. The sad truth - driven home to him during the last
of his many humiliations - is that the Tracy Flicks of the
world do end up running things, and that while Americans pay
lip service to the nobility of teaching, that's about all
they pay. This depressing (but accurate) message is the second
reason Election is not winning by a landslide.
Third: Unfortunately, with the shootings in Littleton and
elsewhere bringing out a lot of pious blather about protecting
our kids, it's not exactly the best time for a film that says
they can be just as vicious and ambitious as any adult, and
that they don't need guns to hurt each other. The shootings
are a horror and I don't mean to minimize them, but part of
the horror is that they, like this movie, shove in our face
the fact that high school is at best tolerable and at worst
a nightmare for the majority of students.
So Election, like a lot of politicians, suffers from
bad timing, Catch this one on video, and play it after the
next State of the Union address or candidates' "debate."
(This article originally appeared in Films in Review, www.filmsinreview.com)