Thursday, November 12, 2009

Election (1999)

You know Tracy Flick already! If you’ve seen Reese Witherspoon’s flawless portrayal of the ultimate high school go-getter than you of course have that specific frame of reference but what I mean is that you will immediately recognize the archetype from your own high school days and cringe and laugh with equal measure during this outstanding second feature from writer/director Alexander Payne.

This is my second favorite of Payne’s films actually (#1 belongs to his debut Citizen Ruth which I will get to another day) but definitely the one I’ve watched the most and it holds up very well after multiple viewings. Ironically, as I look at his filmography I realize that I’ve liked each of his movies slightly less than the one before it (in order Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways) but that’s a little unfair as they are all very good movies. Election though is the one for the masses and for me belongs right up there with Big Lebowski and Best In Show in the “comedies I can always watch” category.
First, we have great casting here. Matthew Broderick is the perfect, ironic choice to play the beloved high school history/government teacher. Our collective association with him as the wild and super-cool Ferris Bueller brings an extra level of pleasure (and sympathy) to seeing him older, washed up and increasingly desperate and bitter as a middle aged man. My one complaint is that his accent sounds like he borrowed it from one of the characters in Fargo and while it is true of the region, it at times sounds a little awkward coming out of his mouth. Next we have Chris Klein who is a terrible actor and a total meathead…which makes him PERFECT for this role as the sweet “popular” jock who Broderick goads into running against the “sure thing” student council President Tracy Flick (his “Paul Metzler: You Betzler” campaign slogan is one of my MANY favorite moments in this film). The showstopper of course is the aforementioned Reese Witherspoon (an actress I really don’t care for in general) who either was this person in school (which wouldn’t surprise me given her achievements at such a young age) or just understands the character to the nth degree. There’s a bizarre musical cue that I can best describe as a harmonized choir of Tarzan like yelling that happens every time Tracy feels threatened and goes into competitive mode and her physical performance is just staggering. There are real nuances to the performance that let you see the manipulative gears turning in her head. Her extreme drive and ambition is motivated by insecurity and fear of failure (true of most people really) and you feel it in every word and gesture. The supporting players are excellent as well. I particularly like Broderick’s swarthy teacher friend who’s banished for having an affair with Tracy and the serious as a heart attack high school principle who just seems endlessly disappointed with the behavior of student and faculty alike.

Basically, Broderick is stuck in a rut in his life and the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back is Tracy Flick. He sees reflected in her his own failed ambitions and dreams as well as a glimpse of the type of future winner Tracy can and will become and decides that he needs to shut her down once and for all during the tempestuous senior year Student Body Presidential elections. This film (like Christopher Guests brilliant mockumentaries) manages to elevate an insignificant small town event into an epic battle worthy of ancient Rome! This is definitely dark humor though. These are desperate and very sad people in many respects (again…much like Christopher Guest’s human menagerie) and Broderick in particular makes an absolute mess out of his career and his marriage before it’s all over. The big difference to me is that Christopher Guest seems to genuinely love the characters in his films and their struggles whereas I feel Alexander Payne is a bit more condescending and poking fun at them (consistent in all of his films really) and a little bit too elitist perhaps. My point is that while this film is very funny and does well in mining small town life for comedy, it is not a heartwarming picture by any stretch. Also, don’t be put off by the fact that MTV’s movie division financed this or that it’s a high school movie. This has a well earned R rating and while it could be enjoyed by teenagers, it’s adults who will best pick up on its sharp social/political satire and who may have had enough professional and personal detours in their own life to relate to (and get some vicarious thrills from) Broderick trying to take the teacher’s pet down a peg or two.

Again, I will go out on a limb and say that this film has a great many quotable lines, memorable comedic moments and rewards repeat viewings at a Lebowski-like level for me (with out the brilliantly intricate Coen Brothers plot of course). It’s got twice as much subtle humor as overt and is well worth the price of admission. Grade: A-


  1. Whoa, whoa, whoa! I just realized how far behind I am in reading these blog postings! I can't keep up with your pace.

    Back to Election: anything "right up there" with the Big Lebowski sounds worth a watch, but I can't imagine the intellectual comparison. Guess I'll have to watch this one to see...
    I am confused about the Christopher Guest references, and had to go back to read whether he was either IN or directed Election. Are you comparing this movie to his, as you have to Lebowski? Enlighten me.

  2. What I was saying in terms of comparing it to Lebowski was simply in terms of it's capacity to be enjoyed just as much after 20 viewings as 1 and having great dialogue.

    The Christopher Guest comparison comes from the type of story it is and the type of characters. I felt like the central event (the student council election) was used much like the dog show or Red, White and Blaine as a kind of silly thing for everyone to be getting so worked up over. It's fun seeing these really extreme, emotional behaviors over such petty things! But no, Christopher Guest was not in any way involved in making the film. Alexander Payne, as I tried to explain in the post is a kind of cinematic cousin (for lack of a better word) to Guest in terms of his subject matter.

    I hope that clarifies. Put it in your library "que" and see what you think...