Election

Dir: Alexander Payne, 1999. Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell. Comedy.
Election

On first appearance what could be just another high school comedy is actually much, much more. From Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the directing and writing team later responsible for About Schmidt and Sideways, Election is a wonderfully smart political satire as well as a rich character study of suburban Omaha, full of truths about both teen and adult life. Reese Witherspoon, in her best performance and perhaps best role, brilliantly plays Tracy Flick, an ambitious high school overachiever, so driven she mostly comes off as unlikable and vindictive, but her back story proves to be much more complicated.

Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) seems perfectly content in his life; his marriage may be stale, but he finds an almost smug satisfaction in being a beloved teacher. Tracy is running unopposed for student body president in the upcoming school election and the inevitable outcome starts to grate on Jim, not just because he finds her generally annoying as a student but also because he knows a secret about her. His one time best teaching bud, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), had an affair with Tracy. After some manipulation she told her mother, which inevitably led to Dave’s firing and his wife, Linda (Delaney Driscoll), leaving him. Jim and his wife Diane (Molly Hagan) are trying to get pregnant, but with Dave now out of the picture, Jim has developed an attraction for Linda and tries to have an affair with her.

Meanwhile with the election looming at school, Jim convinces a popular lovable lug-headed jock, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), to run against Tracy. Paul’s lesbian younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) is seething because he stole her girlfriend from her. So she joins the race just to bring some anarchy to his life and to the school (and possibly get kicked out of school and sent to the all-girl Catholic school she now covets). Eventually Jim’s decisions, going to extremes to see that Tracy loses the election, leads to the almost exact same fate as his lost friend Dave (who also went up against Tracy and her mother and lost his job and his wife).

Based a novel by Tom Perrotta (he also wrote the novel that Little Children was based on), this is a perfectly taut script, it’s funny, very funny, but never jokes for joke's sake. The laughs are smart and always based on reality. Election is also very frank about its sexuality. All of the sexual relationships (and there are many) are completely unerotic and deeply bland, which make the characters' search for sex and desire for sex even more pathetic and therefore more honest and more sadly hilarious.

In the film, encouraged by her hardworking single mother, Tracy writes letters to successful women asking for advice and words of wisdom. Tracy is one of those people who cannot relate to the people around her because she can never live in the moment, instead she is constantly plotting her next move. She comes off in some ways like a more realistic version of Ferris Bueller, the suburban teenage conman, a role that made Broderick famous many years earlier. It’s a cleaver piece of casting, with Broderick now playing the victim of teenage empowerment. Jim is a guy who thinks he is playing all the angles, thinks he is in control of his destiny but in the end, he is just a sad pawn in Tracy’s path to success. The film’s epilogue – where are they now – brings Jim full circle, again he thinks he is content and Tracy once again brings him down to earth.

Election is the best performance of Broderick’s film career (he’s carved a major career for himself outside of film on the Broadway stage as well). Since Election Witherspoon has become a major A-list star, but even with bigger box office hits and winning an Oscar for her solid work in Walk The Line, she may never get her hands on a role with the complicated levels that Tracy Flick gave her. She may win more Oscars and get to chew scenery acting up a storm in plenty of films to come, but no matter how showy her future roles may be, nothing can match the truths she was able to act in this brilliantly written, seemingly small film that is actually so, so large when all the actual truths about the human condition it reveals are added up.

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Election was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 29, 2011 12:41pm
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