Alexander Payne's Election starts off predictably enough, just like any other high school comedy stocked with your usual array of high school characters: there's the nice-guy teacher, the hot-headed principal, the popular jock, the preppie over-achiever with the perfectly coifed blonde curls. Gosh, might there be vicious social cliques at this school? Wisecracking stoners? Hormonally frustrated nerds? Just as you start settling in for the usual gags/lectures on teen conformity, however, Election jumps those timeworn tracks with but a single line of dialogue, plunging its characters into much darker satiric territory.
Sorry, can't repeat that line here in a family publicationbut that should be indication enough that Election is not your ordinary high school comedy. And that's because it's really not about high school at all. Payne's deftly written (very adult) tale concerns itself with nothing less than everyday immoralityhow we can find ourselves doing things that are unacceptable by every societal or legal definition and still do them. Payne apprehends that innocuous, all-American ritualelections for student council presidentand uses it to reveal our worst impulses.
Coming from the filmmaker behind 1996's Citizen Ruththe funniest movie ever made about abortionthis is no surprise. Or perhaps it should betypically, whenever a fresh, young indie filmmaker grabs the big gold studio ring, the results are more along the lines of Hudson Hawk (Michael Lehmann why?). Payne, however, has managed to stick to his guns with this Paramount release, creating a truly gutsy satire that doesn't pull its punches. As in Ruth, Payne manages to tackle taboo subjects for the sake of humorous insight rather than just shock value, and he does it with fleshed-out characters you can believe in rather than just caricatures you've seen before.
In his best role in God knows how long, Matthew Broderick stars as high school teacher and student council advisor Jim McAllister. "Mr. M." is an all-around nice guy, an understanding teacher popular with his students. But behind his compassionate eyes lurks a twinge of dissatisfactionyes, he's won "Teacher of the Year" three times, but his life is in something of a rut, professionally, personally, and sexually. Meanwhile, the preternaturally perky student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is on her way up, up, upand letting nothing stand in her way. She has cast aside all other adolescent concernsfriends, boys, funin her quest to become number one at everything. When Tracy runs for student council president, unopposed yet still campaigning as if her life depended on it, Mr. M. decides to give her some competition. He convinces the football team's sweet-yet-stupid quarterback (Chris Klein) to run; thus, in Tracy's eyes, all-out war has been declared.
While that may be Election's ostensible plot, it's really the side conflicts that send chills up the spine. The real reason why McAllister has it in for Tracy is that she got his best friend and fellow teacher fired from the schoolfor sleeping with her. And whether he admits it to himself or not, he's simultaneously attracted to and annoyed by her. In fact, he's so sexually frustrated that he finds himself falling into the arms of his wife's best friend. Meanwhile, the quarterback's younger lesbian sister (Jessica Campbell) vows revenge when her girlfriend dumps her for himso she runs for president as well. Tracy vents her competitive rage by destroying everybody's campaign posters, then places the blame elsewhere. Election's tragicomedy becomes downright uncomfortable at times, particularly as McAllister sends his life spinning down the toilet and Tracy becomes ever more soulless. Both Broderick and Witherspoon bring real depth and complexity to roles that could've been cartoony in the wrong hands.
Unlike the contrived characterizations and dialogue of "daring" dramas like Neil LaBute's cretin-filled Your Friends and Neighbors, Payne is careful to make his characters all too humanyou understand the bad choices they make even as you cringe at their actions. Consequently, you feel the repercussions of their immorality that much more. While Election does have its own share of "shocking" lines, they have a payoff in humor rather than just existing for the sake of sensationalism. Payne provides a much more compelling, truer picture of moral descent than a dozen monologues about locker room gang rapes.
With but two pictures to his credit, Alexander Payne is arguably the best social satirist in the movies today. Admittedly, this isn't exactly a large field of endeavor (otherwise, there's ah Altman? No um well, Kubrick's got a movie still to comeRIPand Michael Moore's back on TV), but Payne has a perfect record of delivering the goods (so far). Dare we imagine a glorious future for him? Well, perhaps if he avoids taking any lunches with Bruce Willis