Election

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay by Alexander Payne, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta
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 called Election?

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 Clueless.

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 fault.

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)

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