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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Election

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon
Director: Alexander Payne
Rated: R
RunTime: 90 Minutes
Release Date: April 1999
Genre: Comedy

*Also starring: Colleen Camp, Molly Hagan, Jessica Campbell, Chris Klein

Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

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 school.)

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 contender.

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 conclusion.

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

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