Election


          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.