When civics teacher Jim McAllister asks his class for the definition of
ethics and morals, consistent overachiever Tracy Flick immediately
shoots her hand toward the ceiling. Although Tracy looks like she may
pull her arm from its socket if she isn't called on, Mr. McAllister
tries hard to find some other student who knows the answers. He's tired
of her dominance. But, when others flub the answers, he's left with no
choice. With a barely perceptible roll of his eyes he reluctantly
selects Tracy. She -- no surprise -- barks out the exact textbook
definition from memory.
Tracy, as we will learn, knows the definition but not the meaning.
Writer and director Alexander Payne, whose last picture was the
delicious satire CITIZEN RUTH, is back again with an even better
satirical piece, ELECTION. Although it plows some of the same fertile
ground as RUSHMORE, the more consistent ELECTION bears even more fruit.
As the picture's star, Reese Witherspoon plays the anal-retentive Tracy
Flick with a nuanced performance that's light-years ahead of her
marvelous work in PLEASANTVILLE. When Tracy needs to be, she appears
innocent, vulnerable and naively seductive. Usually, however, she's as
tough as nails. Dressed in conservative tweed skirts with dull,
avocado-colored stockings, she is prim, proper and prissy.
If there were an Academy Award for body language, Witherspoon would win
it hands down for this performance. When she concentrates on important
things, like the proper taping of a sign, Tracy's lips appear sealed
with super glue. When she needs to smile in order to get what wants,
her lips retract, and a frozen smile instantly appears. The best comes
when the excessively serious Tracy gets some good news. She hops around
the school halls like a jackrabbit on speed.
Tracy is running unopposed to be class president of George Washington
Carver High School. (The richly sardonic script by Alexander Payne and
Jim Taylor, based on Tom Perrotta's novel, even uses the school's name
to poke fun. I counted only one African-American at this large Nebraska
Matthew Broderick, reminding us again after the GODZILLA debacle what an
excellent actor he can be, plays award-winning teacher Jim McAllister.
Tracy had had an affair the previous year with another teacher, causing
him to lose his job. This put the fear of God into Jim. When Tracy
flirtingly reminds him that, if she wins, they will be spending a lot of
time together, he knows he has to act fast.
As a solution to a possible nightmare, Jim enlists the laid back but
popular athlete Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against Tracy. Shy
Paul is so nervous that he delivers his campaign speech to the school
assembly without ever pausing for a breath.
The campaign balance is disturbed when Paul's lesbian sister, Tammy
(Jessica Campbell), decides in a fit of pique to run against him. The
nihilist Tammy runs on a campaign of abolishing student government if
elected. She says the only ones who benefit are those elected, since
they can use it on their resumes. This generates a war whoop from the
student body and immediately transforms her from underdog into a real
The subtle script takes a chirpy, upbeat attitude to its black comedy
material. The leads all speak in frequent and insightful voice-over to
explain their points of view. The editor freeze-frames the characters,
especially Tracy, in the most unflattering ways. Tracy may project
utter confidence and some wide-eyed innocence, but these freeze-frames
show the ugliness that lies just below the surface.
The movie really shines in its small touches. When one character has an
affair, he goes to the motel (the "American Family Inn" to be precise)
in advance in order to properly prepare the room. The pièce de
résistance is the fresh rose he places inside the Gideon Bible in the
nightstand drawer. How many lovers will figure their paramour will want
to engage in a little Bible reading after their assignation?
The pre-election prayer scene is quite illuminating. Tracy, Paul and
Tammy are especially honest and revealing when talking to God in the
privacy of their rooms.
There are many surprises along the way, including an investigation
involving certain campaign irregularities, but the question is who will
win at the voting booth? It might not be whom you suspect. The
screenwriters manage to make the story enthralling even though they make
what looks like a mistake and let the story go on past its natural
ELECTION runs 1:45. It is rated R for sex, profanity and a brief dope
smoking scene and would be fine for older teenagers.
Copyright © 1999 Steve Rhodes