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'Election': Just the Ticket

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 1999

  Movie Critic

Reese Witherspoon plays a cherubic candidate with a wicked desire to win. (Paramount)

Alexander Payne
Matthew Broderick;
Reese Witherspoon;
Thora Birch;
Molly Hagan;
Colleen Camp
Running Time:
1 hour, 44 minutes
For sexuality and sexual language so that everybody in high school will feel right at home
Go on. Admit it. It's okay. It'll be good for you. Back in high school, you hated the student council president.

He or she was a little icky gob of simpering perfection, a cloying, suck-up fascist with a taste for self-aggrandizement, high grades, and a lengthy extracurricular resume. The narrow self-interest of this obsequious smiler and glad-hander made you sick, particularly as it sequestered behind giant clouds of cosmic flatulence entitled "School Spirit." He or she had a delusional insistence on self-importance, a rigidity of spirit and intellect, an almost total lack of either irony or self-awareness.

And while there is a special room in Hell for these horrible people, until they die, the most pain they'll have to face is "Election," a wonderful, piercing and hilarious examination of high school politics and how bitter and ruinous it can become. Urge them to see it and suffer.

To encounter Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), the iron mistress of Carver High School in Omaha, is to hate and fear her. There's something in the prim set of her jaw and the steely gray of her eyes that shows through when she thinks she's not being watched. She is pretty, perfect, perky and given totally to the accomplishment of her goals. She's not lazy. She gets to school early, edits the yearbook, has a high GPA, and always has her hand raised highest and first in class. Her life is consumed in petty ambition. If you get in her way, she will stomp you to pulp and, like Hannibal Lecter, her pulse will never rise above 85. At least that's how Jim McAllister, better known as Mr. M, sees her. Jim (ever friendly, ever rumply Matthew Broderick) is a familiar figure to most grads of suburban high schools: He's a kind of teacher as celebrity, who is everywhere, sponsors everything, and has donated his body, soul and ego to the school. He actually knows the words to the school song. He may even believe them. Everybody thinks he's so nice. And he is nice. But at the same time, you slightly suspect his motives: Like, doesn't this adult man have a life?

Of course he does, and the movie is complex enough to see that although he's its nominal hero, it's not much of a life. He has a loveless marriage with a doughy spouse whom he seems unable to stimulate, much less satisfy, and a transparent need to punish Tracy in the real world of the high school to pay her back for the sexual heat she inspires in him in the unreal world of his head.

That's pretty much "Election." It sees through everybody. Nothing impresses it. All ideology is hollow self-aggrandizement, all causes bogus, the good are always punished and the bad always triumph. It's misanthropic, cruel (so cruel it draws laughs from a vice-presidential nominee in a wheelchair, and I defy you not to laugh), and dead on. It's got the best faces on screen in years. Everybody looks exactly like who they are, particularly the school's clueless administrators with their open Midwestern mugs and gray crew cuts, or the hard-set eyes and too much makeup of Tracy's paralegal and very litigious mother (Colleen Camp). Seeing it is like standing in line to get the crusty macaroni and a milk or lemonade carton and still having no place to sit in the lunch hall, that cruelest of all arenas.

The main technique underlying this joyous celebration of human weakness is an obscure trick of the storytelling trade called "the unreliable narrator." Tracy and Mr. M take turns telling the story of the election in which they were essentially opponents, and both lie blandly to us as they speak, in clear contradiction to the behavior we witness on the screen. Both claim virtue as their cause and shield; both reveal the lowest kind of base human greed or envy as their motive.

The director, Alexander Payne, displays the same equanimity of contempt he showed in his previous film, "Citizen Ruth," where both liberals and conservatives were bashed with gusto. That realpolitik obtains here as well, as perky pretty perfect Tracy, with her foursquare bromides, stands for conservatism in its insipid claims to moral purity and higher patriotism, and Mr. M is liberalism, propelled into deviousness by its own notions of superiority, quite willing and able to subvert democracy to achieve its supposedly higher ends. It offers a pox on both their houses.

It's Mr. M who cadges the decent jock Paul Metzler (refreshing Chris Klein) to stand against the unopposed Tracy, but the race isn't thrown into turmoil until Paul's sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) also enters the race, out of frantic sibling rivalry and frustrated sexual longings (a long story, best left for the movie to tell).

The movie watches as the conflict between Tracy and Mr. M, though sublimated into secret stratagems and small, insincere gestures, intensifies to the point of hysteria. It's not hard to see the folkways behind a certain semi-square city on the Maryland side of the Potomac in all this. The true battles are battles of spin and combat by proxy, under a veneer of sniveling genteelness, only occasionally giving vent to pure hatred. Ultimately one of the contenders becomes so wrought up in the conflict that he or she stupidly destroys him- or herself.

Of course "Election" illustrates a famous adage usually ascribed to faculties or newsrooms: The fight is so bitter because the stakes are so small. But the laughs are so big.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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