Election (1999)

Reese Witherspoon runs for office in high-school satire Election

Director: Alexander Payne

Cast: Matthew Broderick (Jim McAllister), Reese Witherspoon (Tracy Flick), Chris Klein (Paul Metzler), Jessica Campbell (Tammy Metzler), Phil Reeves (Principal Walt Hendricks), Molly Hagen (Diane McAllister), Colleen Camp (Judith Flick), Delaney Driscoll (Linda Novotny), Mark Harelik (Dave Novotny)

High school can be a great setting for films that want to comment on our adult world, because they are such exact microcosms for society. Few films get this idea as effectively as Alexander Payne’s simply superb Election.

In an Illinois high school, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is a civics teacher who loves his job but is increasingly annoyed by high-achieving student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), who he also unconsciously blames for the dismissal of his friend Dave for having an affair with her. Tracy is a ruthless careerist, the sort of girl whose hand is always first up in class, and she wants more than anything to win the election to school president. Feeling it his duty to stop Tracy, McAllister persuades football star Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her – and slowly unleashes a hurricane of ruthless campaigning and dirty tricks that leads to disaster.

This sharp and brilliant satirical comedy avoids jumping to any easy conclusions: instead it ruthlessly skewers everyone involved. Other films would make McAllister a crushed victim, broken down by events and Tracy’s unstoppable force of will. Instead, Payne turns him into an increasingly self-deluding whiner whose impending mid-life crisis becomes more and more evident. There is a particularly sly decision to cast Broderick as this weak-willed, selfish, self-proclaimed victim. Who cannot think about Ferris Bueller now all grown up into a klutzy loser, ineptly trying to initiate an affair with his wife’s best friend and mentally super-imposing Tracy’s head onto his wife’s body during a routine pregnancy-focused coupling?

In fact, watching the film it’s fascinating to see how much it charts McAllister’s disintegration into bitterness and self-justification. By any measureable standard, everything he does is fairly indefensible, while his annoyance with Tracy is rooted in his barely self-acknowledged sexual fascination with her. By the end of the film, as his cheery voiceover recounts his failures and personal and professional disasters with a self-deceiving optimism, you can’t help but begin to wonder how much this manic cheerfulness infected everything McAllister has told us from the start.

It’s things like this that make the film so much more than a straight political satire. Tracy Flick may be a ruthlessly ambitious young woman, who believes she has a nearly divine right to win – but she’s also the child of an equally ruthless woman (using Tracy to relive her own life), who has been sexually exploited by one of her teachers, whose smiles and enforced cheerfulness and drive hide a volcanic anger and insecurity. She could have been simply a smiling force of political ambition – but instead she feels like a real person diverting her own problems into a domineering careerism.

All of which adds a rich hinterland to the film and helps make it even funnier than it could have been. This might be the best political satire ever made. It’s certainly one of the funniest. There are zinger lines every few minutes. The satire is pin-sharp. Tracy is the qualified political hack that the normal people can’t relate to. Paul the Bush-like jock who can speak the language of the common man but manifestly lacks all qualifications. Tammy represents the anarchic frustration and alienation so many feel for the political process. The entire election is a shrewd, subtle skewering of every campaign in politics you’ve ever seen. Even the jobsworth geeks who run these things get it in the neck – “Larry, we’re not electing the fucking Pope” McAllister snaps (at the end of his tether) as he has the ludicrously elaborate election rules explained to him again.

But the film doesn’t forget the humanity: McAllister is a deluded man, but he feels real. He’s so inept at everything from seduction to deception it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him. (As if to visualise his uselessness, he spends the last third of the film mostly with a massive swollen eye from a bee sting). Tracy has her own problems. Paul, far from being a heartless jock, is the most sensitive and caring person in the film (even if he is as dim as a failing lightbulb). Tammy’s a touching combination of good natured cynicism and obsessive, vengeful stalker.

Of course, it also helps that the acting is outstanding, the comic timing (both in acting and direction) perfect. Reese Witherspoon might never have been better than as the ruthless Tracy, a hurricane of hilarious repeated concepts from political biographies. Chris Klein is very sweet as Paul, a guy it’s impossible not to like. Jessica Campbell is perfect. Broderick holds the entire film together with a superb schleppy moral weakness. Payne’s direction brings all these elements together brilliantly – and has a way with the freeze frame and quick edit that provides a series of striking visual gags.

Election is a classic film – a brilliant satire on politics and elections, but also human nature itself. The characters have depth and reality that makes the jokes hit home with force. The use of voiceover narration from all the main players helps bring us even closer to them, and helps expose their inner personalities even more. I think this might be the best film Payne has made – Sideways and The Descendantsreceive the greater plaudits and attention, but this is his sharpest, wittiest film, and the one that is perhaps the most rewarding of repeat viewing. It’s simply a brilliant, small scale classic.

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