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Film Review: Election

Election (1999; Directed by Alexander Payne)

Election represents a lot of peaks for many of those involved in this spiky, wonderful little social satire of the unswerving American drive to succeed. It was an early peak for its young star Reese Witherspoon, whose career has been defined by roles as more developed (and probably less interesting) versions of the manic go-getter Tracy Flick. It was unquestionably Peak Adult Matthew Broderick (a low bar to clear, to be sure), and without a doubt Peak Chris Klein (he’s still an awful actor, but here his doofushood is channeled into funny material). And even director/co-writer Alexander Payne, who went on to make some critically beloved arthouse indie dramas about various sad white people, has maybe never topped this deceptively simple, subversive comedy that made his name as a filmmaker.

Witherspoon’s Flick is running for school council president in her Omaha, Nebraska high school, and is fully determined to win, just as she insists upon winning at everything else in her young life. Broderick’s Jim McAllister, her school’s dedicated civics, current affairs, and history teacher, is rubbed the wrong way by Tracy’s aggressive achieving. His narration remains steadfastly positive about his life, career, and accomplishments, but his crappy car, his plain wife, his slow students (they can’t tell morals from ethics and Mr. M doesn’t clarify effectively, a failed distinction that foreshadows the film’s events), and his secret porn collection combine to suggest that he’s ended up as a bit of a loser. Tracy’s pursuit of excellence starkly exposes his lack thereof, and the resentment boils to the surface. This resentment is no doubt amplified by Tracy’s affair with McAllister’s fellow faculty member and best friend Dave (Mark Harelik), who loses his job and his marriage when the dalliance is exposed while the underage Tracy gets off scot-free.

McAllister is in charge of the school council election, and begins to scheme to choke off Tracy Flick’s inevitable ascension to its head. McAllister’s mission to stop Tracy is all down to a frothy swirl of envy, revenge, displaced anxiety, and maybe even frustrated attraction (okay, not maybe but for certain: McAllister sees Tracy’s face in place of his wife’s while they’re having sex). It’s to Payne’s credit (he co-wrote the screenplay with Jim Taylor, based on Tom Perrotta’s novel) that he never makes Mr. M’s motivation totally explicit, leaving his reasons open to suggestion and interpretation.

Whatever his motivation, Mr. M persuades the popular football team quarterback Paul Metzler (Klein) to run against Tracy. When Paul begins going out with the ex of his adopted lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), Tammy joins the presidential race as well. Their campaigns speeches to an assembly in the gym contrast sharply: Tracy is polished and on message, Paul reads atonally and uncharismatically from a jock-ish playbook of cliches, and Tammy decries the entire faux-democratic charade and preaches apathy, to thunderous applause. When merely pitting the popular football star against Tracy doesn’t appear to be enough to achieve McAllister’s aim of thwarting his imagined nemesis, and with his attraction to Dave’s ex-wife Linda (Delaney Driscoll) destabilizing his life, the teacher preaching morals and ethics contemplates disregarding both quite flagrantly.

The rapid downward spiral of Mr. M as the election approaches is excellent, direct comedic filmmaking with plenty of hilarious touches. There’s no particular plot or charatcer need, for example, for McAllister to get stung in the eyelid by a bee while attempting to find Linda for an illicit tryst, but it’s a cruel twist of fate, the bitchslap of an unfeeling karmic universe. After Tracy justifies her election button blitzkieg on the school by referencing Coca Cola’s massive advertising budget maintained despite its top-dog status in the soda market, McAllister is shown drinking Pepsi exclusively. Payne has Broderick register the dark irony, but the observant viewer will register it before that happens.

There is a rich vein of allegory to Election that makes it applicable to the adult public life of the country and not just to the often-idealized American high school, as well. The sparring voice-overs of McAllister, Tracy, Paul, and Tammy are all of them delightfully unreliable as narration, the quintessentially modern American delusions that precondition their perspectives crossing paths and interweaving freely. This little film is anything but little; it covers a tremendous amount of satirical ground before most of its audience can even realize it. It’s a high-point for nearly everyone involved, and one of the great American comedies of the 1990s, bar none.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. March 6, 2016 at 12:05 pm

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