Hollywood has been obsessed with teenagers in recent times. There
have been a slew of youth-themed movies, many of which have literary
antecedents (e.g., SHE'S ALL THAT which owes a debt to Shaw's
PYGMALION, 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU which re-imagined Shakespeare's
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW as a high-school romp). Mixed in have been the
rare gem that should have across-the-board appeal most exemplified in the
unjustly overlooked RUSHMMORE. Now comes ELECTION, a smart and savvy
satire that uses high school as a prism to examine, well, life. Writer-director
Alexander Payne scored a critical hit with CITIZEN RUTH which dared to take
on abortion rights and presented a flawed heroine well-played by Laura Dern.
Still, the film had its flaws; for all its daring, it was a tad messy (just like
real life some may argue) and some critics were not charmed by its hit or miss
comedy. Well, ELECTION doesn't suffer from those problems; Payne
has grown as a filmmaker and has crafted one of the most original and
enjoyable films to come along this year. My only fear is that like RUSHMORE,
this film will not find an audience. ELECTION may be too sophisticated for
teens and adults may avoid it believing it to be just another teenage flick.
More's the pity, as both groups will find much to admire in the picture.
Payne has chosen to set the film in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska,
hardly a popular motion picture location. The story is deceptively simple as
well. It is narrated by civics teacher and student government advisor Jim
McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a popular and charismatic teacher at George
Washington Carver High School, who, it turns out, also has his own share of
problems. His marriage is stagnant and he and his wife are at an impasse in
their quest for the illusive baby. His best friend and fellow teacher
has succumbed to the wiles of one Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), an
ambitious overachiever who emerges from the scandal intact while the teacher
loses both his job and his marriage.
When Tracy announces her candidacy for president of the student body
and it appears will be unopposed, McAllister decides to intervene and derail
her plans, partly out of a sense of morality and partly because he hates the
girl. He manages to enlist the sweet-natured, albeit slow-witted jock Paul
Metzler (Chris Klein) to take on Tracy. Further complicating matters, Paul's
younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a budding lesbian, throws her
hat in the ring as a spoiler when her girlfriend dumps her in favor of Paul.
(Tammy wins the attention of the students by railing, "Who cares about
this stupid election?", which in turn upsets the principal who decides to find
grounds to expel her.)
As Tracy plots her campaign and McAllister attempts to derail it, he
also faces moral and ethical dilemmas in his own life. His friend's wife begins
to look good to him. He begins to insinuate himself into her life and the pair
finally consummate their attraction one morning before school. As the election
approaches, McAllister finds his own life spiraling out of control and in a
misguided way, lays all the blame on Tracy.
Payne has managed to cast this film superbly. Reese Witherspoon
finally comes into her own as a leading lady -- building on her little-seen
work in FREEWAY. In the more mainstream films in which she has appeared
(e.g., PLEASANTVILLE), her characters were more one-note and rarely
allowed this actress the opportunity to shine. Here she is perfect as the girl
you love to hate -- you can't really root for Tracy as she is the type of character
just begging for her comeuppance, but Witherspoon imbues her with just
a soupçon of vulnerability. It is masterful work and bodes well for her future
as both a comic actress and a lead. Matthew Broderick has not had a role this
meaty in years and he, too, rises to the challenge. Gone are the cutesy
mannerisms from his youth, he has become a bit paunchy with graying
temples. Broderick gives a full-bodied, rounder characterization of a truly
flawed human being. While he may seem a paragon in the classroom,
outside beats the heart of a guy struggling with a mid-life crisis. Special
mention has to be made of both Chris Klein and Jessica Campbell, both of
whom make auspicious film debuts as the Metzler siblings.
My only real quibble with this film is its generic title. While the central
event is indeed an election and the story functions on the more oblique level
as a satire on politics -- it is a rather bland and unexciting moniker. Admittedly,
I would be hard-pressed to offer a better suggestion. As it stands, ELECTION
is a savvy and acerbic movie that is a bracing tonic that should be seen by
anyone interested in fine movie making.
Rating: A -
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.