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Election
1999 - R - 103 Mins.
Director: Alexander Payne
Producer: Albert Berger, David Gale
Written By: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, Tom Perrotta (novel)
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein
Review by: Marc Eastman
   
Now that Alexander Payne’s ‘About Schmidt’ has met with rave reviews, we are reminded of his '99 directorial effort ‘Election’. Though ‘Election’ had and has its popularity, it flew under the radar of many, and is still not appreciated as much as it ought to be.

Ferris Bueller comes full-circle in this movie revolving around a high-school student-government election. Matthew Broderick plays Jim McAllister, history/government/current events teacher, and faculty in charge of student elections. Reese Witherspoon plays Tracy Enid Flick, insanely obnoxious (and insanely insane), super-achiever who is running for student-body president on the holier-than-thou ticket.

Though they don’t particularly realize it right at the beginning, Tracy and Mr. McAllister are going to be enemies. Mr. McAllister can’t quite stomach Tracy, and Tracy can’t quite stomach anyone getting in her way. Things look bleak for Mr. McAllister (who has to put up with another Tracy every few years), because she’s running unopposed. He strikes upon the idea of getting some competition into the game, and prods injured, ex-quarterback Paul Metzler into running against her. After all, he’s the most popular guy in school.

Tracy goes wild at learning that she has competition, and the race is on.

There’s not much purpose in detailing the events that transpire any further. You see them coming a mile away really, and nothing is intended to be a surprise. We have a look at a teacher who is fed up, not entirely stable, and whose world starts spiraling. We also have a look at a student who: has been raised in a strikingly similar way to those you see in beauty pageants at eight, believes her own press, and is certainly destined to be a senator or such.

The movie is not really in the plot here. The movie is in the acting, the dialogue, and perhaps you might say the ‘exposure’. It’s a darkish comedy, and like most dark comedies, it’s not really the plot, but the way we get the plot. There’s a bit of a ‘Bring It On’ feel to the film, and I have my suspicions that there is a certain group of over-achievers out there that are big fans of this movie without realizing it is making fun of them (Oh, that bad teacher trying to subvert the system and stifle that bright, young girl! and so on). Much like those involved in ‘cheer’ who are fans of ‘Bring It On’.

There are also moments within the film, and in some way the overall result, that is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde. The style of sarcastic humor (it’s incredibly funny, but you don’t laugh out loud), the constant motion, the way in which characters enter and exit scenes, the general sense of constant discord, and the fact that every character has some bit of the fop or dandy in them.

The dialogue is mostly brilliant, and some of the smaller touches really push things to new realms of hilarity. Most brilliant of all, these small touches are not pointed to in the way that we have grown accustomed to. There are no ‘Look, this is the funny part’ devices used in this film, which makes the film all the more enjoyable. You either get it, or you don’t, but either way the film isn’t going to insult you by assuming the worst. Take for example Tracy’s speech before the election. In a bizarre attempt to gain support, Tracy reveals secrets (or at least ‘not public knowledges’) about her fellow students of a fairly embarrassing nature, and does so working from some theory that she ‘knows the students and knows their problems’. That she is so oblivious to how insulting her comments are is pure gold, but it is merely part of her speech that is not highlighted in any way.

Both Broderick and Witherspoon give great performances. We knew Broderick could work in the role, because it is something of a bastardization of Ferris Bueller. Ferris Bueller, perhaps, gone wrong, left to fester, and become a teacher. Witherspoon is more surprising. Her comedic timing, especially in confrontations with Broderick, is spot on, and her expression and attitude are perfect. The characters are not especially well-developed, but I presume they aren’t really supposed to be. If you’ve been to high-school you know who these two are anyway.

I’m not particularly fond of movies that turn on the blatant stupidity of certain plot moves, but this is not really a movie where such things can be given much weight. When we see someone throw something away with such blatant focus on the act, we know it’s going to be found, and we are (even when caught up in a film such as this) momentarily irritated. Why didn’t he pocket it? Eat it? Anything? On the one hand, it just doesn’t matter, because this isn’t the sort of movie that pretends the plot steps are anything interesting. It’s just a hilarious, cynical commentary. On the other hand, it works to some degree as a simple statement of the character’s inability to succeed.

Certain sub-plots (the jock and his sister), while not especially interesting in themselves, provide their own mirthful commentaries, and their own precious moments. Moments, in fact, are most of what this movie is all about. Glimpses. Insights. A moment, for instance, when for no real reason we sit with our frustrated, lesbian (and frustrated lesbian) teen as she stares at the local power plant. She likes to sit and look at it, she tells us. They say, she shares, that if you touch two of the ‘mains’, your body would simply vaporize. Turn instantly gaseous. She likes to come here and look at the power plant. She wonders what that would feel like.

So do I.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

 
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