movie review by
Gary Johnson


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Election is a very funny movie. It's also nihilistic. Comedies are usually considered as positive and life-affirming. But a new crop of filmmakers, led by directors such as Todd Solondz (Happiness) and Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth), have fashioned a sharply satirical slant that slings vicious barbs at middle-class America.

Payne's newest movie, Election, is no different. Much of the humor comes out of how such an apparently normal and (arguably) mundane occurrence--an election for student body president at a suburban high school--could turn so twisted and ugly. Hardly anyone escapes the poisoned tipped darts slung by Payne. The students are duplicitous and conniving--with one blissfully ignorant exception (a good-natured jock with a bum leg). And the teachers are adulterous and vengeful. Heck, in comparison, even The Simpsons allows for a ray of light every now and then.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not criticizing Election; I'm just trying to describe it. But to a large degree, your reaction to this movie will depend upon your tolerance for nihilistic comedy. Within the world that he has created, however, writer/director Payne's bleak vision makes perfect sense. He doesn't supply many positive role models, but that's part of the humor. He sets up a familiar situation and then he allows for a catastrophic series of bad turns to completely take control.

Matthew Broderick is the unfortunate victim of most of the mayhem, although "victim" isn't quite the right word because he's directly responsible for much of what happens. Rather, the fates gang up on him and give him no slack whatsoever. Broderick plays a high school teacher named Jim McAllister. His best friend, fellow teacher Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), was recently fired because of an affair with a student. Jim had warned his friend, but Dave wouldn't listen: "She wants to read by novel!" moons Dave. "You haven't written a novel!" reminds Jim. Now, that same student, a militantly hard-working overachiever, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), is running for student body president--unopposed--and Mr. McAllister is in charge of the election process. He begins to fear her and what might happen to his own career if he is left alone with Tracy.

Jim's home life is reasonably good--or at least he considers himself happy: "After nine years, our marriage was better than ever," he says, but the camera then shows Jim and his wife eating their dinner in silence. He insists everything is fine, but the camera tells us otherwise. Meanwhile, Tracy smiles and tells him, "When I win the presidency, we're going to be spending lots of time together." It scares the bejesus out of him. Therefore, Mr. McAllister brainstorms for ways to subvert her candidacy, and he comes up with a doozy of a plan: he convinces a slow-witted but popular jock named Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) whose leg was broken in a skiing accident to run opposite Tracy for president. This plan becomes complicated when Paul's sister (Jessica Campbell), a budding lesbian whose girlfriend has dumped her for Paul, decides to enter the presidential competition, running on a platform whereby she promises to dismantle the student government if she wins.

Part of the pleasure of watching Election simply comes from watching Matthew Broderick in action. Not that long ago, we were watching him as the wise-cracking high school student in movies such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Now, the tables are turned while he grapples with the responsibilities that go along with being an adult--and failing miserably. We still get flashes of the young, hip Broderick, as when he fantasizes about an affair and we see the ludicrous images in his mind: he speeds down a highway in a snazzy convertible while his scarf flutters in the breeze. But now hipness is a joke that director Payne uses to undercut the fantasy.

Equally effective is Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick. After looking dangerously seductive in Cruel Intentions, she now becomes an opportunistic barracuda who has no friends. She devotes all her time to school and extracurricular activities. She's a near cousin of Max Fischer in Rushmore. Witherspoon looks completely different from her previous roles. Here, she is so tight-assed that she walks with a stiff-legged shuffle. (Watch for cult actress Colleen Camp, the star of movies such as The Swinging Cheerleaders and Death Game, as Tracy's mom.)

Election is one of the year's best comedies. It gives us a character who evokes images of a young Monica Lewinski. Tracy has no interest in her fellow students. Her only interest is in climbing the social ladder and she'll do whatever it takes to move up another rung. Alongside this year's Rushmore, another comedy about an overachieving student, Election pales somewhat in comparison. Its nihilistic vision becomes suffocating, whereas Rushmore offered some glimmers of hope and growth. But as long as you can appreciate writer/director Alexander Payne's fondness for nihilism, you'll have a blast.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]