Directed by Alexander Payne
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell, Molly Hagan, Mark Harelik, Jeannine Jackson, Colleen Camp, Phil Reeves, Matt Molloy.
1999 103 minutes
Rated: (for sexual situations and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 8, 1999.
Well, who would have thunk it? After an endless stream of mostly predictable and cliched movies set in high school in the last year, one has finally come along that is amazingly so precise, so hilarious, so biting, so smart, so perfect, in every one of its minute details that it comes as a sort of godsend. Its name is "Election," it's directed by Alexander Payne (1996's "Citizen Ruth"), and it, no doubt, will go down as one of the very best films of 1999.
Set at Omaha's Carver High School during the election for student council, the film imaginatively is narrated by all four of the main characters so that we can learn and understand the innerworkings of their minds, even when they are saying the opposite of the actions they are making. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick, coming full circle from his role in 1986's classic "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") is the school's most popular teacher, a guy who has won the Best Teacher Award for three years running and who shows up at school nice and early each day. Friendly to (almost) all of his pupils, the one student who manages to get under his skin so much that he can't stand her is overachieving senior Tracey Flick (Reese Witherspoon), currently running unopposed for school president. If you're old enough to have experienced high school, you've definately run into someone like Tracey. She's the "perfect" student, a person who seems friendly to everyone even though you can see through their thin facade; a person who constantly raises their hand in class and knows every answer to every question; and a person who you know, no matter what, is going to achieve everything that he or she strives for in life. It's just Mr. McAllister's luck, then, that he happens to also run the student elections and, determined to cause Tracey to lose just one thing in her life, he convinces naively cheerful football jock, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), who has recently broken his leg in a skiing accident, to run against her for president. Altough at first hesitant, Paul quickly grows eager to join the race, causing Tracey to grow outraged. For her, this means war. But that's not all; in a plot twist whose particulars should be discovered on your own, Paul's younger, rebellious sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a sophomore, also enters into the race, causing a three-way tug-of-war between Tammy, who poses to the students that she doesn't even care if she wins the election, and as president, won't do anything; Paul, who is joyous just to be in the running; and dear, dear Tracey, who will go to any length possible to ensure her ultimate defeat.
Reading the premise, "Election" may sound like "just another teen flick," but it isn't by a long shot, and is in its masterful treatment that it succeeds so highly. I can assure you there is no climax set at the prom, and the story doesn't cowardly degenerate into a romance concerning which guy gets the girl. No, what "Election" is is a brilliantly articulated satire, a "high school" movie that is probably targeted more towards adults, but that all thoughtful teens will greatly appreciate as a much-needed diversion from all of those sugar-coated teen fantasies that have assaulted the multiplex in recent months.
Although "about" a high school election, it gradually grows clear that telling such a simple, clear-cut story isn't director Payne's intentions. Not only is there a heavy dosage of narration by the four principle characters, but the film also isn't always told chronologically, as each plot thread is carefully and delightfully torn away to not only create a more meaningful motion picture, but also one that has something to say about loneliness. Through the big, sly laughs that the film creates, it is revealed that each of the characters are lonely, in their own certain way, and we are taken into each one of their lives to learn just why they are the way they are.
For example, we eventually find that Jim McAllister is obviously unhappily married (even though he says during narration that his wife is "his source of strength"). When his buddy and a fellow teacher, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), is fired for having a sexual relationship with one of his students, Jim grows closer to Dave's solemn wife, spending more and more time with her and convincing himself that he loves her, not realizing that it isn't love that draws them together, but desperation. Jim's life is a monotonous and dull routine, as he goes to school, teaches the same things over day after day, and then goes home to the same woman that he has been married to for nine years. Certainly a lot of people have this sort of life, but Jim needs more. Matthew Broderick, who has fallen on hard times in recent years (1997's "Addicted to Love," 1998's "Godzilla"), has revitalized his career with "Election," and has, indeed, given his strongest, most gratifying performance since "Ferris Bueller" thirteen years ago. We don't just see his sadness, we feel it.
Matching Broderick in every way is Reese Witherspoon, maybe the most talented actress under 25 working today, who has never been better. It would be criminal to see her flawless, nuanced, and hilarious performance get snubbed of an Oscar nomination come next year. Witherspoon transforms herself so completely into the heart, soul, and body of Tracey that it will be difficult from now on to distinguish the two personalities, although she is so wonderful in every film that she should have no trouble doing just that. In the character of Tracey Flick, we have also been given one of the most distinguished and memorable characters I've probably ever seen in my years of film-watching. She is the type of girl who you really shouldn't like at all. She's perky, she's unblemished, she's successful, but she is also so desperate and determined to be a winner that you can't help but feel genuinely sorry for her when things don't go her way. Like Jim McAllister, no matter what feats Tracey seems to triumph over she remains a lonely person without any actual friends. In a couple brief scenes involving her paralegal mother (Colleen Camp), we get a few hints as to what made Tracey the way she is. Although loving, her mother strives for the same exact great success as Tracey.
Chris Klein and Jessica Campbell, two film newcomers, also fit neatly into their respective roles. Klein is probably the most completely likable character in the film, as his Paul comes off as always innocent, even after we see him doing several arguably negative things, because he is so unintelligible and dense that he never really comprehends the things he's doing. There's no denying, however, that Paul has a big heart, and he cares about others. Jessica Campbell turns in a touching performance as the outsider, Tammy, who is torn apart when the girl she loves breaks up with her. "I'm not really a lesbian, though," Tammy reassures. "It just so happens that so far all of the people I have been attracted to have been girls."
If "She's All That" is "'Pygmalion' set in a high school" and "10 Things I Hate About You" is "'The Taming of the Shrew' set in a high school," "Election" is "'Fargo' set in a high school," and out of the three the latter is definately the highest honor. We don't necessarily watch "Election" as much as we absorb every single second of its constant entertainment and pleasures, excited to find out where it will lead us. Of technical note, the music score by Rolfe Tent is distinct and often even gains laughs because of its frightening perfection, sort of like Tracey herself. Writers Payne and Jim Taylor have fashioned one of the most fresh and original screenplays to come along in some time, as it never condescends to any of its potential audience members, whether it be adults or teens. "Election" is a dazzling dark comedy, clear in both tone and substance, and has the ability to be rib-tickling one moment and poignant the next, all the while never losing sight of its truthfulness and courage. In a week when "The Mummy" will unfairly be the #1 movie in America, making tens of millions of dollars, "Election" is the real deal, and now that it is in wide release, make it an effort to go out and see this sure-to-be classic as soon as humanly possible.
©1999 by Dustin Putman