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'Election' Wins By a Landslide

By Desson Howe
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
Contains profanity, nudity and sexual scenes
"Election" is the satire of the season, a hilarious, razor-sharp indictment of the American Dream. More accurately, Alexander Payne's movie is about the way that dream plays in the head of one Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), an overexuberant sprite who is running for Student Council president at Carver High School with almost satanic single-mindedness. And in the tradition of such all-American sendups as "Nashville" and "Smile," "Election" probes the internecine politics swirling around a closed world to better diagnose the societal maladies beyond its walls.

As Tracy spreads out her "Tracy Flick" cupcakes and election buttons, puts up her posters and glad-hands her way around school, the movie asks: Is she hiding a manipulative agenda under the banner of American success? And is she marching to the beat of Old Glory or Old Nick?

Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), Tracy's high school teacher and the principal narrator of this movie, has his opinions. Tracy Enid Flick, he believes, is nothing short of apple-polishing evil. In class, he watches with a pained expression as she thrusts her hand into the air to explain the delicate difference between ethics and morality.

Does she really believe what she's saying? Something in those flashing, sanctimonious eyes portends the worst. Jim knows such eager dedication to learning, and joining every single club in school, must be verbally encouraged. But in his heart of hearts, he knows Tracy must be stopped.

Jim's first anti-Tracy measure is to enlist injured, popular quarterback Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) as a rival candidate for president. The teacher's ostensible reason for recruitment: to turn this election from a one-candidate cakewalk into something resembling democracy. His real reason: stand up to the antichrist.

But as Tracy declares at the beginning of the movie, "You can't interfere with destiny." If you do, she says, with below-freezing sureness, "you'll just suffer."

Do we have a good fight here? You betcha. Witherspoon plays Tracy so convincingly, I'm not sure I can look at her without a shudder again.

Broderick wages his secret war with delicately restrained outrage, fighting – or masking – his emotional impulse to thwart her progress. But Tracy's right: He suffers indeed for daring to take her on. In fact, he evokes such magnificently emasculated frailty as Tracy perseveres, you practically avert your eyes.

Left like this, "Election" would be watchable enough. But Payne, who adapted Tom Perrotta's novel with Jim Taylor, goes deeper.

No one escapes moral scrutiny. Almost everyone falls afoul of their passion or poor judgment as they try to make sense of life. Even Tracy, who has a certain hermetically sealed integrity of her own, has her weaknesses. Just ask teacher Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), who spends a little too much time with her after hours.

Consider Jim. He has three Teacher of the Year Awards. He cares deeply about the future of his young charges. And he considers his wife (Molly Hagan) a "source of strength." But as the pressure to defeat Tracy increases, his moral choices become increasingly tarnished. He has a treacherous road to trudge before he can sing "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead." Assuming he ever gets to celebrate.

Payne, whose feature debut was "Citizen Ruth," finds a perfect fulcrum between humor and tragedy, between black comedy and poignancy.

For instance, when quarterback Paul's sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) decides to join the political fray as a sort of nihilistic Ross Perot spoiler, it is for romantic revenge. Someone stole her loved one and that someone has to pay. We know the depth of Tammy's pain when she sits in gloom before a cluster of electric pylons and composes this little devotional nugget: "If you died right now," she says, "I would throw myself into one of my Dad's cement trucks and get poured in your tomb." In this movie, you laugh at comments like that as much as you wince.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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