*** 1/2 Stars
(US 1999) Rated R
Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell
Directed by Alexander Payne
Writing credits: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Paramount Pictures * 103 minutes
I can deal with getting older. I can deal with the creaks, the aches, the hot flashes. I can deal with listening to myself say, "We never did things like that." But Matthew Broderick greying at the temples, well, that's more than I think I can handle.
In ELECTION, Alexander Payne's dead-on funny, mean-spirited follow-up to his equally dead-on funny, equally mean-spirited CITIZEN RUTH, Matthew Broderick is no longer Ferris Bueller -- this time, he's Mr. Rooney, or rather, Jim McAllister. McAllister is one of those teachers everyone loves. He asks philosophical questions that make students think, whether they want to or not (like "What is the difference between morals and ethics?"). He's faculty adviser to the student government, convinced it makes a difference in students' lives. He's a twelve-time "Teacher of the Year" at George Washington Carver High -- you know, the type that always gets to sit with the First Lady at the State of the Union Address. If you were lucky, you had a teacher like this and still remember him/her today.
Except that McAllister puts his reputation, and his career, on the line, all for a student election, where the relentlessly energetic, ambitious, and perky Tracy Flick (a terrifying Reese Witherspoon) has her eyes on the prize of the student government presidency. Flick is one of those über-achievers we all have known, who manages to pull off straight A's, as well as leadership positions in every club and every organization. She's the true soulmate to RUSHMORE's Max Fischer. Today the student government, tomorrow the world.
Because this is the 1990's, and even high school students are cynical about government, no one runs against her, until Jim (for reasons having to do with The Wages of Sin and Tracy's career-ruining affair with his best friend and fellow teacher) decides that she must be stopped. He recruits his own candidate, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), an affable, hugely popular, sweet, but dim football star, to challenge Tracy the Bulldozer for the presidency. Jim's plan is further complicated when Paul's cynical sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) decides SHE wants the job, so that she can dismantle the student government entirely.
As the campaign progresses, Jim's classroom questions about morality and ethics take on new dimensions, as his own life begins to spin out of control, both in the classroom and at home.
Like CITIZEN RUTH, ELECTION is not always an easy film to watch, as its depiction of human foibles is dead-on perfect. An uncomfortable subplot in which Jim begins an affair with the estranged wife of Tracy's former teacher/lover is full of textbook cheating thought patterns and behaviors, in which the affair seems to be true and real, consequences become meaningless, and frantic phone calls are made to the "other woman" (who in this case, laudably, decides to set things right). Seeing the ends to which this obsessed "Teacher of the Year" sets out to overturn an election is both comical and frightening. Equally comical and frightening is the relentless singleness of purpose with which Tracy Flick attacks each milestone in her meteoric career.
The performances are uniformly excellent. For once, Broderick is singularly unlikable. Like his generational and genre compatriot John Cusack in PUSHING TIN, he effectively portrays an otherwise decent guy gone bad over a meaningless and pointless obsession with the achievements of another. It's a jarring experience for the moviegoer to be forced to dislike a character portrayed by an actor who has portrayed nice guys for more than ten years.
Reese Witherspoon shows here that she is not just another pretty, blonde, blue-eyed Alicia Silverstone teen flick chick. From the first glimpse of her square, determined jaw and her pointed, thrust-forward chin, Witherspoon conveys Tracy's all-out ruthlessness in pursuing her own ends. She is a one-woman wrecking crew, without once losing even one of her perfect blonde curls.
The real surprises in this film are the actors playing the Metzler siblings. Chris Klein, who has the dim, clueless affability and even the facial features of a pumped-up Keanu Reeves, makes the football hero a guy we can applaud (difficult to do in the aftermath of recent jock-torment-triggered school shootings). Jessica Campbell, as Tammy, follows in the tradition of Sara Gilbert's Darlene on Roseanne (and =ahem= Your Humble Critic), as the smartassed, alienated teenager who knows (correctly or not) that she's smarter than 90% of her classmates.
As American culture becomes weirder and weirder, Alexander Payne has an interesting career in front of him, as perhaps the country's film maker with the most finely-honed sense of the absurdity -- and the horrors -- of modern life.
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