Alexander Payne‘s acerbically witty satire Election could have been a prequel to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The film points out that American high schools, far from functioning as the nation’s first line of defense against ignorance, are petri dishes for the infectious disease of political power. Student government is this breeding ground, and all who oppose it are—as any crook or liar could tell you—lepers who should be quarantined for their nonconformity. Hypocrisy, thy name is politics.
For hypertensive overachiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), the race for student council president is only about the winning. Beat ’em at any cost, she tells herself. Because joining ’em makes you less than special, and that could be bad for your acne.
Civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) sees the charade as a chance to demonstrate the real-world application of his ethics discussions with students. A true man of the people, McAllister is determined not to let one more manipulative narcissist revel in success. So he convinces easygoing jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to challenge Tracy for the title. Along the way, Paul’s younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) joins the race. Her reasons for running are almost as silly as Ross Perot’s reasons for temporarily calling it quits in ’92. But revenge is a powerful motive. Dirty tricks are, like, so afoot when your lesbian lover Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia) decides she’s straight and runs off with your bro. Yet it turns out, she’s one of the few voices of reason at the school. Calling the whole election business a big fat waste of time, she receives a standing O from the student body and a disqualification motion spearheaded by the sanctimonious principal Walt Hendricks (Phil Reeves). You go, girl.
McAllister is much less level-headed, participating in the very moral hypocrisy he publicly deplores. The man has clearly lost his mind, allowing his marriage and career to get sucked up in the vortex of his mad-capped desire to wipe the smirk off little miss perfect’s face. Meanwhile, he cheats on his wife with Linda Novotny, who in turn had divorced her husband Dave (Mark Harelik)—McAllister’s best friend and a teacher at the school—for having an adulterous affair with Tracy. Talk about a serpentine web of immorality.
Payne’s casting of Witherspoon and Broderick couldn’t have been better. Witherspoon, well-known for her leading-role versatility in such diverse titles as Legally Blonde, Walk the Line, and Water for Elephants, sparkles with wicked brazenness. Broderick, in sharp contrast, who seems to have never quite outgrown puberty, exudes the boyish idealism we knew and loved in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Perhaps now he can even sympathize with Principal Rooney. Only this vendetta runs deeper than absenteeism. It’s about high-flown concepts like justice, honor, and—most of all—morals. Of course, wriggling on the floor in adulterous embraces and sabotaging written ballots isn’t exactly ethical. Hey, Mr. Ethics Expert, didn’t anyone ever teach you that little saying about two wrongs not equaling a right?
Through McAllister, Payne’s critique of self-interest becomes so ironic that the likelihood of the situation it depicts becomes stratospherically improbable. What teacher would risk losing a job he loves solely to satisfy his lust for revenge against a high-school twit competing in a meaningless election? Does such idealism even exist? By painting with such broad brush strokes, Payne causes his message to lose its humanity. Caricature replaces character, and realism, criticism’s blade, is dulled. There’s a side of Election that unfortunately calls to mind Not Another Teen Movie. To the list of teen-movie stocks such as too-perfect princess (Tracy), nice-guy jock (Paul Metzler), and sexually confused youth (Tammy Metzler), Payne contributes a somewhat newfangled stereotype: sociopathically justice-obsessed professor.
Fortunately, as he also demonstrated in Sideways, Payne seems to possess a talent rare among today’s filmmakers for keeping his audience so engaged (and amused) that his faults of structure or conception almost fall below the radar. A notable example is the intercutting of the three candidates’ prayers to God on the night before the big day—through which Payne seems to ridicule the shallowness of his own stereotypes. While the too-arrogant-to-be-believed Tracy asks the guy upstairs to put her in office “where she belongs,” the jilted Tammy pleads for her brother’s victory over “that cunt Tracy” despite the fact that he came between her and Lisa. It will come as no surprise that porridge-for-brains good guy Paul is the only one whose motivations for prayer appear unselfish. He hopes that his sister’s happiness improves while expressing thanks for the mundane comforts of his suburban existence: his good parents, good health, his truck, even his large penis—the latter would be sacrilege in anyone else, but in a jock it’s simply testosterone-induced stupidity.
These deity-directed apostrophes, highlighting three students’ inabilities to change their agendas or reflect on their character failings, function as a microcosm of Payne’s broad criticism of politics as a venue in which, despite its promises of human betterment, it’s rare to learn anything worthwhile about oneself or others. Along the way, the film pokes fun of the sort of unpleasant symbioses between people—whether resulting from sexual attraction, the need for security, or a desire for popularity—that inauspiciously begin in adolescence and ferment in adulthood. Nothing new there, though rarely has this message been conveyed with such wickedly irreverent humor. At the least, Election should get you thinking about whether voting is really your civic duty or whether you shouldn’t bother because, after all, isn’t life just a big fat tissue of lies anyway?
Joe’s Grade: B+