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Election

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 30 April 1999

  Directed by Alexander Payne.

Starring Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon,
Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell, Frankie Ingrassia,
Colleen Camp, Delaney Driscoll, Dolly Hagen,
Phil Reeves and Mark Harelik.

Screenplay by Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne,
based on the novel by Tom Perrotta.

It may not be completely original (sadly, little is these days), but this teen-angst revenge saga from the director of the small but enjoyable Citizen Ruth, is deliciously malevolent and one of the best little films I’ve seen this spring. Thirteen years after his day off stirred the funny bone of the masses -- and remains a corner foundation of my video collection -- Ferris Bueller has grown up and gone mainstream. He’s been re-shaped into Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a semi-happy family man and devoted history teacher of the year (3 times already!) at George Washington Carver High School. A day of reckoning is at hand, as Bueller’s past catches up with his made-over self, in the guise of Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), an extremely dedicated (and eventually, exceedingly cut throat) pupil and future student body president.

Ferris’ bright, sunny skies of Chicago have become McAllister’s cloudy and menacing firmament above Omaha, Nebraska, hometown of director Alexander Payne, who has re-fashioned some of the corn-is-as-high-as-an-elephant’s-eye characters (yeah, I know it’s not Oklahoma, but I feel like singing) from Tom Perrotta’s novel, with the help of Jim Taylor, his co-conspirator on the wickedly amusing screenplay as well as on Payne’s earlier, debut feature. McAllister’s life and marriage begins to unravel at the same time that Tracy’s singular tunnel vision crystallizes her future for the next 20 or 30 years, much like Jason Schwartzman’s vision in Rushmore (she is introduced in the film in an identical, over-achieving manner), but her first hurdle is over the speed bumps in her school election campaign. And it is the unfortunate student government advisor playing god to the democratic process who gets flatten by his steam rolling adversary. In this microcosmic political maelstrom all in Hurricane Tracy’s path get crushed. Witherspoon, recently seen in the glossy, Manhattanized update of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, is treading on familiar ground. In the possible words of Yogi Berra, it’s Cruel Election all over again.

Initially confusing but soon afterward refreshing is the story’s voice-over point-of-view, including Tracy and McAllister’s, plus a few more of the other main characters thrown in for good measure, each offering their selfish rose-colored outlook as the tale grows darker. McAllister’s deep hatred of the prissy teenager evolves from math teacher and best friend Dave Novotny’s weakness for her flesh. And Tracy shows Dave that there is a lot more that you can develop in the dark room than photos for the school newspaper. Mark Harelik’s performance is tearfully hilarious as the sea slug in search of extracurricular and extramarital activities.

Kudos are in store for the entire ensemble cast, primarily Broderick and Witherspoon as the nastiest of sparring partners. Broderick may get more mileage out of his portrayal of Inspector Gadget later this year, but Election will bring him better reviews. Witherspoon continues to impress in a variety of school-themed pictures and her maturity as an actress continues to impress. Chris Klein and Jessica Campbell appear as senior Paul and sophomore Tammy Metzler, two widely different students brought into the presidential campaign. Paul is the bumble-headed but popular first string quarterback (out for the season with a broken leg, although thankful in his nightly prayers for his ample manhood) recruited by the nefarious McAllister. His apathetic sister joins the grassroots fray when her supposed lesbian lover Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia) bolts from her bedroom and into the arms of big brother and the family hot tub. Yes, this does sound like a wacky John Waters/John Hughes collaboration with a touch of Hitchcock, particularly one divinely outrageous moment that has the rebellious Tammy playing perfectly into her conservative parents’ unwitting belief that their daughter would be better off in a strict private school -- Immaculate Heart -- an all girls parochial institution. Also deserving of honorable mention is Delaney Driscoll as Linda Novotny, divorced from her no good husband and perhaps looking for some plumbing relief from helpful handyman McAllister.

In lieu of the initial news reports on the tragedy this week in Littleton, Colorado, it is unfortunately easy to see how the black comedy of Election can create or re-create an atmosphere of deadly consequences. No such comparison would have been mentioned had the film had not been pulled from last year’s release schedule. Perhaps the budding Tracy Flicks who watch this sophisticated comedy can be tempered to lighten up and laugh a little (or, like me, a lot), remove that huge stick up their you-know-whats, and focus more clearly on the implications of their actions. Hopefully the brilliance of films like this will at least take our minds off the realities of life and make us turn inward in personal examination and laugh outward in cynical appreciation. It’s a cruel world, but thanks to Election we can snicker along with it.


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