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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"Election" takes place in a high school but is not a teen flick. Directed by Alexander Payne and written by Payne and fellow satirist Jim Taylor, "Election" uses the setting of a secondary school in Omaha, Nebraska as a parable of life in America; specifically, about the craving that Americans have to succeed at all costs and the emptiness that triumph can bring to people who neglect other aspects of their lives. Its creators imply that what really counts are genuine friendship, true love, and modesty. As the song goes, "It's fine to be a genius of course,/ but keep that old horse before the cart,/ First you've gotta have heart."

Being the fine satirists that they are, Payne and Taylor-- whose well-cast 1996 film "Citizen Ruth" was also about the depraved nature of fanaticism--is never didactic. We do not feel we are receiving a lesson when we watch this ingenious piece, which is so well written and wonderfully acted that its comic moments come across unforced. You may go away from this sparkling picture resolved (at least for a day or so) to take yourself just a trifle less seriously while putting your ambition in perspective. Given regular reinforcement of other such films, you may wind up staying around on this earth a mite longer, enjoying yourself more, and cultivating a more sensible outlook on your life. That's quite a return on your eight dollars, but then, "Election" is not your ordinary Saturday night at the pictures.

This is not to say that the country's economy would grind to a halt if we all absorbed Payne and Taylor's purport. One character in the movie, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), does become successful in gaining the school office that he seeks- -if only for a day or so--and he achieves his prominence while holding on to his modesty, his popularity, and his guileless aw-shucks attitude. "Election" is a spirited teen-dominated film that throws spitballs at Americans unlike Paul-- who will step on everyone in their way to gain power, who rigidly insist that their hard work signifies the correctness of their vision. Director Taylor levels his feature at nothing less than America's Puritan heritage, at the conviction that celebrity, riches and power will assure its adherents a place in heaven among God's elect.

"Election" centers on two people; Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a popular social studies teacher in his late thirties who acts as adviser to student government, and Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), a junior with an unwholesome impact on her teacher's life. There's a Tracy in every high school: in the movie "Rushmore," her protege would be Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), an overachiever who takes charge of virtually every extracurricular activity and, with his romantic pursuit of one of his school's instructors, appraises himself an adult. Tracy's is the hand that is always raised while others in the class are stymied. Her drive is all-encompassing enough to seduce her geometry teacher, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), thereby ruining his career. Her vigor and aggressiveness have adverse effects on Jim McAllister, who has been unable to get his wife pregnant and who is becoming increasingly irritated with his spouse's quirks. Though McAllister is smart enough, there are times that we think young Tracy knows more about him than he is aware of himself. Despite his popularity (he has been selected teacher-of-the-year three times, a school record), Tracy feels sorry for him: after all, he teaches the same subject year after year, and what person of reasonable faculties would not climb the walls after drawing a chalkboard diagram of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government for the seventy-fifth time? Tracy's vital sense of life becomes a malevolent influence on Jim, who will eventually self-destruct--though in ways far more comical than you would imagine.

The story is told with extensive narration, mostly in flashback, and centers on a school election. When no-one dares oppose the willful Tracy, McAllister is determined to thwart her drive to the top student office. He recruits a popular athlete, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), a lad who is none too bright but who has high regard for McAllister and reluctantly agrees to run. The fun swells when Paul's lesbian sister, Tammy Metzler (Jessica Campbell) enters the race, a friendless youngster whose popularity soars when she declares that if elected, she would dismantle student government permanently so that "we would never have to go to another stupid election assembly." Had the film not been blessed by marvelous leading performances, Ms. Campbell could have stolen the show. Without for a moment expressly intending to be amusing, she brings down the house with her genuinely felt anarchism, though she can be touching as well when her love for another young woman goes unrequited.

Best of all is Reese Witherspoon--at 23 years of age a fast- rising star currently on the cover of trendy magazines like TimeOutNY. She knocks out a trenchant performance as a 17-year-old who thinks she has it all but deep in her soul realizes that she is missing life's most important reward: the sincere affection of her peers. Matthew Broderick comes on wonderfully as well as a kind of Willy Loman. Though unlike Arthur Miller's creation this Jim McAllister is confident of his choice of profession, he shares Willy's unawareness of the kind of man he really is. Throughout the story we are cognizant of some inner adversary that gnaws at his essence far more profoundly than the bee which lands on his eyelid while he is visiting a momentary lover and creates an ugly bump with its stinger. Because "Election" is so well acted, so probing, directed with such a laid-back hand by a man with a perfect sense of comic timing, this movie is right up there with such terrific accomplishments as Todd Solondz's equally satiric classics, "Happiness" and "Welcome to the Dollhouse."

Copyright 1999 Harvey Karten

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