“Election” is a dark, insidiously funny satire on the self-involved ways otherwise rational people can allow narrow personal agendas to lead them astray to the point of self-destruction. Although technically another high school film in that virtually all the important characters are either teachers or students, Alexander Payne’s second feature (he debuted with the mordant social comedy “Citizen Ruth”) brandishes the sort of intelligent wit and bracing nastiness that will make it more appealing to discerning adults than to teens who just want to have fun. Pic is thus squarely in the “Rushmore” camp of smart, sophisticated, original films that even spirited critical acclaim can’t push to more than OK theatrical results.
Shooting once again in his native Omaha, Neb., Payne has delivered another caustic picture that won’t go down too well in Middle America. While keeping his eye on his overall theme — the ease with which average people’s religious, moral and ethical standards can be overcome by their selfish, primal interests — Payne knowingly takes on such dicey subjects as teacher-student sex, the uselessness of student government, corrupt administrators, lesbianism at parochial girls schools and the ruthless cruelty of teenagers. Almost everyone here is conniving, self-absorbed and interested only in No. 1, which spurs plenty of corrosive comedy but also lessens the weight and consequence the film might otherwise have had.
Working from the 1998 Tom Perrotta novel of the same name (which was inspired by the three-way 1992 presidential campaign and the true story of how a Southern high school principal invalidated the election of a pregnant girl as prom queen), Payne and “Citizen Ruth” script collaborator Jim Taylor set the scene with some clever voiceover narration that eventually emanates from several of the main characters.
Via a cascade of short scenes aided by wacky visuals (notably, some purposely embarrassing freeze frames), we learn about how Mr. Novotny (Mark Harelik), a math teacher at Carver High, became emotionally and physically involved a year or so back with the school’s overachieving goody-goody, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), ultimately losing his position and family as a result. Mr. Novotny was the close friend of history and civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who loves his job, has been thrice chosen for teacher-of-the-year honors and is trying to have a baby with his wife, Diane (Molly Hagan).
Basically, Jim can’t stand Tracy, the school’s Little Miss Prim, who approaches high school as her personal field of conquest, a place to launch what she is certain to be a brilliant career in whatever endeavor she chooses. When Tracy announces her candidacy for the presidency of the student body and appears to be running unopposed, it’s all too much for Jim; in an attempt to thwart her, he secretly recruits popular, utterly unqualified jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), who’s sitting out this season with a broken leg, to join her on the ballot.
Unexpectedly, Paul’s disaffected lesbian sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), whose would-be girlfriend has just dumped her to go with Paul, decides to run as well and wins instant support from the sullen students by running a “Who cares?” campaign, promising to abolish student government if elected.
Appalled as Tracy is by her foes’ lack of seriousness, the competition just makes the industrious girl work that much harder, as she makes banners, manufactures pins and occupies a campaign post at a hallway table before anyone else gets to school. Meanwhile, Jim, who stresses ethics in his classroom lectures, slips another rung down the ladder in his personal behavior when he has an ill-advised fling with his old buddy Mr. Novotny’s lonely wife, Linda (Delaney Driscoll).The film delights in detailing the frequently lurid and unsavory impulses that drive people, and Payne has developed a cinematically fluid means of expressing them. In addition to the multiple voiceovers, which are wittily used both as informational devices and private confessionals, there are some very funny optical inserts used to convey subjective views and desires; when Jim is dutifully having sex with his wife, for instance, little cameos of other women urging him on pop up in front of him, and when Tammy’s angry parents inform their wayward daughter that she’s being sent to Immaculate Heart for the following school year, Tammy reacts by pleasantly visualizing all the girls she’ll meet there.
In taking aim at the largely uncharitable motives behind his characters’ actions, Payne comes off as pretty uncharitable himself as he limits the dimension of his subjects. As well meaning as Jim is shown to be at the outset, the teacher’s increasing dementia pinches one’s feelings for him to the point where he just seems like a loony lost cause. In a related plotting problem, Linda’s betrayal of Jim is unexplained and seems thoroughly unmotivated.
While some psychological underpinnings for her gung-ho lifestyle are neatly laid in, Tracy can’t help but serve as an object of ridicule; all the same, there is a moment of possibly inadvertent poignancy at the end when she can be seen as a Monica Lewinsky in the making, an effect accentuated by Witherspoon’s plump face and rigid hairstyles.
Once he sets himself on his descent, Broderick’s Jim slides down the slippery slope in increasingly grim fashion, his haplessness accentuated by an awful bee sting that makes his eyelid swell up horrendously. The actor skillfully offers up a man who is a perfect walking example of how the path to hell is paved with good intentions. The contributions of Wendy Chuck’s costume design are evident here: Jim’s perpetual outfit of a tie and short-sleeved shirt is acutely right. Witherspoon nails Tracy in a nifty performance that rings true: there’s one of her ilk in every school and office.
Much more sympathetic, however, are the Metzler kids, and Payne has scored a bull’s-eye in his casting of these roles. Klein, a local Omaha non-pro, shines as a good-time boy who becomes a willing pawn in Jim’s scheme, and Campbell, a St. Louis actress, brings appealingly impudent and rebellious shadings to the outcast sister role. Other perfs amount to finely wrought caricatures.
Rolfe Kent’s exceedingly varied and resourceful score is an invaluable asset in defining and maximizing the film’s comic tone. Unappetizing Omaha locations and unflattering lighting give the surroundings as well as the people a dull, ugly look, which has to have been part of the point.