Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Alexander Payne

REVIEWED: 05-17-99

The new comedy Election has been justly praised for its sly take on the American political process, though that's not the full extent of its satirical triumph. Directed by Alexander Payne, from a script cowritten with Jim Taylor (adapting a novel by Tom Perrotta), Election covers the race for student body president at a high school in Omaha. What begins as a spoof of homespun Midwestern values develops into a civics lesson spiked with deceit, corruption, and the corrosion of ideals--in other words, a typical campaign story.

Reese Witherspoon plays Tracy Flick, the kind of perky, soulless overachiever who populates just about every public school in this country--the kind for whom education is less about acquiring knowledge than putting up impressive numbers. Matthew Broderick is Jim McAllister, the social studies teacher who resents everything Tracy stands for, and who recruits a popular football star to run against her for president.

Election lets each main character tell the story in his or her own voice, in overlapping narration, a technique that illustrates the distance between self-image and behavior. This is especially effective with Broderick's well-liked "Mr. M," who lectures his classes (and the audience) about the difference between morality and ethics, then invites his wife's best friend to join him for a tryst at the local American Family Inn. Witherspoon, who has been disappointing in recent roles, recovers nicely as the almost feral Flick, a lonely girl with a maniacal streak.

The film's nasty tone is somewhat balanced by the other two narrators. Chris Klein plays Paul Metzler, the former quarterback (sidelined by a leg injury) and all-around nice guy, whose wide-eyed reaction to the events whirling around him masks a general emptiness. The most straightforward tale is told by Paul's sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a budding lesbian with the most complicated motivations--she enters the campaign to spite an ex-lover and causes a stir by promising to abolish the student government.

The filmmakers have a great deal of fun at the expense of the pointlessness of high school elections, which aren't just popularity contests but overt wastes of time. Mr. M tries to set up the ritual as an example of democracy--what he calls the freedom to choose between apples and oranges. Except that the apples and oranges that McAllister draws on the chalkboard both look like featureless circles; and as Paul astutely points out, his fondness for each fruit varies day by day. (A better metaphor for the American electorate you're unlikely to find.)

Like most successful satires (The Truman Show and Being There leap to mind), Election is as much about the pathetic struggles of everyman as it is about ideology. Payne and Taylor explicate the growing tension that leads McAllister to manipulate the campaigns--teaching the same dull facts, year after year, and then going home to bland meals and his secret stash of pornography. He begins to overestimate his own importance, and to believe that by saving the school from Tracy Flick, he's actually making a difference.

But all of that is right on the film's hilarious surface. What makes Election a deeper experience is the filmmakers' mastery of visual cues, from the heightened mundanity of a soda can's ludicrous lettering to the subtle coarseness of the printed name "FLICK" when you squint at it. Their best visual joke is the simplest, and the most telling--the automatic seat belt on McAllister's car, which slowly and inexorably wraps around his body, as a potent symbol of a character strapped into a role he never wanted to play.

--Noel Murray

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Other Films by Alexander Payne
Citizen Ruth

Film Vault Suggested Links
Wag the Dog
In & Out
The Sum of Us

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