Election (1999)

D: Alexander Payne
S: Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick

American Pie meets Primary Colors in this high school political satire from the novel by Tom Perrotta. Overachieving youngster Reese Witherspoon (Pleasantville) campaigns for president of the student council in a whitebread school, much to the discontent of politics instructor Matthew Broderick (Godzilla). In an attempt to allow democracy to run its course, Broderick encourages likable jock Chris Klein (American Pie) to run against her, an action which causes a chain reaction of events which eventually brings Broderick's seemingly happy life crashing down around him. Despite too many concessions to an MTV audience (MTV were among the production companies involved in making the film) in the form of ribald sex scenes and an unnecessarily flashy visual style, the basic script, adapted by director Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, does contain many interesting elements. The dialogue is quite literate and the characters are more multi-faceted than usual, eliciting contradictory responses as the film progresses. This leaves the viewer unsure of with whom our sympathies lie, which allows for an unusually even-handed study of the characters' motivations. Further insight is provided by multiple voice overs and well-judged cross-cutting between their different perspectives, all of which contributes to the restless style of the film, but which also serves some useful purpose at least in this regard.

In some ways the film is a rejoinder to Broderick's star-making turn in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, as the pre-slacker up-beat eighties know-it-all he played in that film might well be seen here in a later form: reasonably happy and seemingly in control, but whom eventually, when exposed to a student whose own attitude threatens to overwhelm his values, succumbs to his darker side. Broderick is very good in the role, capturing a moment of pre-middle age masculine crisis which goes horribly, horribly awry very fast with a good balance of confusion, frustration, and dumbfounded rage. For her part, Witherspoon is superb in a role which could easily have lent itself to cliché, but which allows her to present an interesting interpretation of the sniping, cruel-edged personality of a career politician (nonetheless not entirely without heart or redeeming features). She is both funny and vaguely frightening in a way which suits the film's playful mood perfectly. The film also bears some similarity with Wes Anderson's Rushmore on this level, though it works in a very different visual and tonal register. The deliberately disconcerting leading character and the setting in a somewhat antiseptic, generic American high school lend themselves less to realism than to a level of surrealism which Rushmore played to the hilt but which Election shows only in small subversions. Supporting performances from Klein, Frankie Ingrassia (The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom), and Jessica Campbell are also entertaining.

There's a lot of interesting stuff in here. It takes on a range of moral and ethical issues (and ensures the audience is in on the joke when it comes to blurring the lines between them by having Broderick pose the question of how to define them both early on in a classroom), and offers itself as an explicitly satirical and political film. It succeeds in this at least insofar as the audience's attention is constantly directed to the core issues and the moral and ethical consequences of the characters' actions, and though there is a certain amount of smugness about its concepts of poetic justice, there are one or two pointed observations about bitterness, disappointment, and frustration as facts of life. Yet Payne's insistence on a flashy visual style with lots of close-ups, unusual angles and camera movements, and exaggerated cutting does little except provide lots of visual exclamation points and allow him to give some credence to the relatively explicit sex scenes which pepper the movie. On one level, these things can be seen as attempts to pander to the contemporary youth audience the producers hoped to reach. On another they may be an appropriate stylistic decision to add a dash of cartoonish unreality to the proceedings. Yet in scenes such as those between Broderick and a fellow teacher who has had a sexual relationship with a teenage student and later scenes where he himself faces the temptation and consequence of infidelity, it seems undignified. Compare the style with that of the political satires of the previous generation (The Candidate, The President's Analyst, etc.) and you'll see just how much it owes to the broad, simplistic visual language of sit coms and music videos, and how this hurts it on some level.

On the balance, Election is a thoughtful comedy with a good mixture of laughs and wry smiles. It does ask a lot more of its audience than might be expected, certainly on the level of character, which may not endear it to casual audiences, but it is not quite art house either. It is worth seeing though, perhaps for a more discerning viewer, which is not to say there is not fun to be had by all. It suffices to say that it is neither Primary Colors nor American Pie and fans of either may find themselves vaguely dissatisfied, although they may also find themselves pleasantly surprised, depending on their disposition.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.