'Election,' 1999

Sunday, November 5, 2006

Known for: Utter certitude, complete lack of self-awareness and mindless ambition.

How wondrously monstrous is the fabulous Reese Witherspoon in Alexander Payne's "Election." She's one of those perfect American girls who gets up at dawn, bakes cupcakes, carries a 4.0, is president of the French Club and captain of the cheerleaders. You hated her in high school, unless she smiled at you, in which case you loved, adored, worshiped, were enraptured by, were enslaved by, would do anything for her -- until the next day, when she ignored you again, and that rapture turned to bitter, rancid hatred that lasted a lifetime. Unless she smiled the next day. However -- she never did.

In Payne's study of her pathologies, Tracy's will is so fiery and her perfection so total that no one dares stand against her in her goal, which is the student council presidency of an Omaha high school. Her antagonist is not a schoolmate -- no one has the guts -- but her teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who more or less stands for the normal schnooks of the world. He sees Tracy as a threat and can't stop himself from trying to stop her, first by recruiting someone to run against her (good guy Paul Metzler, played by open-face, enthusiastic Chris Klein), then by tipping the election in Paul's favor, plausible because McAllister happens to be the faculty adviser to the student council.

But . . . he gets caught, and ruination, humiliation and catastrophe ensue. The movie's politics are hardly opaque as Tracy seems to stand for the then seemingly unstoppable, self-disciplined righteousness of the Republicans while McAllister reflects the feckless, self-loathing incompetence of the Democrats. I do not take sides on this issue; regardless, it's a clever platform on which to build a movie. And it does what few movies bother to do: It sees that politics is always politics, no matter the venue.

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