Election (1999)

Election (1999)
  • Time: 103 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Drama
  • Director: Alexander Payne
  • Cast: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein


Tracy Flick is running unopposed for this year’s high school student election. But school civics teacher Jim McAllister has a different plan. Partly to establish a more democratic election, and partly to satisfy some deep personal anger toward Tracy, Jim talks popular varsity football player Paul Metzler to run for president as well. Chaos ensues.

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  • A dedicated teacher. An ambitious student. A sidelined star football player. His rebellious lesbian sister and the girlfriend who swings back to the opposite sex. All players in the outrageous Alexander Payne satire Election.

    In his first film, the giddily provocative Citizen Ruth, Payne skewered both sides of the abortion issue. The result was a contemporary screwball comedy fronted by Laura Dern’s uneducated, glue-sniffing Ruth. In Election, the alarmingly unapologetic blonde in question is Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). Tracy can be summed up best in one word: ambitious. An absolute overachiever, she’s involved in every extracurricular activity, every committee (as long as she’s the leader) and, in class, her hand is the first (and sometimes the only) to shoot straight up and stay there in rigid anticipation until the teacher finally succumbs to her persistence.

    The trouble begins with the onset of the student government presidency election. Despite the fact that no one else is running against her, Tracy goes through the procedures and wakes up early in the morning to set up her sign-up booth. All is going according to her plan but then an unlikely obstacle shows up in the form of Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick). In his 12 years as teacher at George Washington Carver High, he’s been named “Teacher of the Year” three times. The kids love him, he’s supportive of them and considerate of their problems. He’s also one of the school’s most ardent supporters, attending every game and cheering the school team. He loves his job. “That’s how I wanted to spend my life,” he proclaims. So why does this mild-mannered teacher of ethics and morals convince the wildly popular, endearingly dim-witted football hero Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against Tracy?

    Aside from the burning desire not to have the superhuman overachiever Tracy Flick win without so much as breaking a fingernail, there’s the affair she had with his friend and fellow teacher. When the affair was discovered, his friend lost everything — his job, his wife, his child, his reputation. When Tracy learns of Paul’s candidacy, she seethes but puts on her severely sunny smile. Things snowball when Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) joins the race after the girl she was in love with hooks up with Paul. Tammy wants to do more than get revenge, she wants to abolish the student government altogether and she hopes her inflammatory remarks will get her suspended and transferred to a Catholic all-girls school.

    As in Citizen Ruth, where both sides of the abortion issue tried to exploit Ruth and her unborn baby to further their cause, the election becomes littered with people running for reasons that have no bearing on politics. One can only hope that Election is not consigned to be categorized as one of the spate of teen-driven films — Election has far more intelligence, wit and ambition than all of them put together. With Payne at the helm, the film lacerates, amuses and provokes. There’s a Leave it to Beaver feel to the proceedings which only makes the perversities more striking. Payne, who adapted Tom Perrotta’s novel, is a truly unique, wholly original voice who has managed to modernize the brim and brio that infected comedies by Preston Sturges, Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch.

    Payne elicits terrific performances from Klein and Campbell, both of whom are making their film debuts. Broderick once again displays his courtly, old-fashioned appeal. Payne does unlock a glimmer of the deviant in Broderick. During one of the film’s most hilarious moments, he imagines Tracy’s face over his wife’s as they’re making love. The furious passion in Broderick’s eyes was quite a sight to behold.

    Payne also draws out a dead-on performance from Witherspoon, who gets her best role thus far and runs away with it. Looking like a mechanized moppet gone mad, Witherspoon truly breaks out of the pack with this one. She and Broderick share a brilliantly written verbal showdown and note the rhythm as Witherspoon slowly but surely gains the upper hand. Not just as the character, but as an actress.

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