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starring: Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon

by joseph
Spring, 1999

The trouble with Election is that I doubt it will do well simply because it is too smart, too daring, too funny. Of course, movies that could appeal to the most erudite of tastes and also been relatively successful with the movie-going community at large are in evidence,with Fargo being a recent example, but Election may just rub too many people the wrong way, whether it be the main character's moral relativism, theprevalence of four-letter words (though used always to great effect, not in the Mamet-Tarantino style use of profanity as backbeat), or the uncritical acceptance of teenage sexuality, both hetero and homo. All in all, it's a tough package for a lot of people to swallow.

For a more jaundiced crowd, though, the movie is a breath of fresh air. Not only because it is one of those rare movies whose plots you did not already know from the trailer (this movie packs a lot of surprises), but also because it is one of those rare glimpses we get in movies of that elusive beast , the three-dimensional character. The ultimate genius of Election is its ability to exploit stereotypes for comic effect (the jock, the dedicated yet sexually frustrated teacher, the go-get-'em girl and her driving, pill-popping mother), while at the same time imbuing each of the main characters with a complexity and a depth that is generally missing from even one character in most mainstream movies.

At first, you don't know what to make of the movie. We start off with only the one narrator, Matthew Broderick's Mr. McAllister, a middle-aged civics teacher (although later we are treated to monologues from each of the four main characters, which also contributes to the movie's uniqueness--a rotating narrator/commentator, more like a play or a novel than the average film which generally focuses in on the star and perhaps his girl). Matthew Broderick is the perfect choice for this movie, a Midwestern Everyman. Broderick has always been a solid actor, proving himself in inane but infectious teen comedies like Ferris Bueller's Day Off and in the dramatic tour de force of Glory, and I think his appeal for me is that he is like an unmysterious, unsinister Kyle MacLachlan, which is precisely what gives him such appeal. Broderick has that quality that MacLachlan and William Hurt have, the ability to not remind you of their presence as "star actors." You sink into their portrayals and are not constantly reminded of the fact that they're auditioning for an Oscar. They're not scenery chewers like Nicholas Cage or DeNiro or Pacino. What works about them most often is that they say lines the way we'd say them, not the way we wish we could have said them for the greatest dramatic effect in some overly theatrical universe, but the way the lines would have probably come out of our mouth had we been standing there. Broderick's characters aren't archetypal figures howling at the stars, they're schmoes like the rest of us trying to make do. And Mr. McAllister is possibly one of the best and most complex characters in film. You find yourself yelling at him while simultaneously completely knowing where he's coming from when making an ass of himself.

And he does indeed. The movie poster's tagline of "Reading. Writing. Revenge" really does not do the movie any justice and was obviously made up by a marketing person who possibly knew that the appeal of the movie would not lie in its categorizability (if I may possibly invent that word) but in its opposite. I find myself following Mr. McAllister while he does despicable things, and the entire time rooting for him and hoping that he gets his shit together before the movie is over.

While all of the performances could be applauded,and while Reese Witherspoon certainly deserves the credit she's getting for the movie (though honestly Chris Klein pulled off his part with an equal amount of vigorous authenticity, and Jessica Campbell certainly deserves extra kudos for turning a difficult and underwritten role into a character you can truly empthasize with) , it was ultimately the screenplay that carried the day.

You rarely hear that, of course, and while it would be easy to focus only on performance or only on Alexander Payne's direction, since it, too, was chancy and brilliantly effective , it is ultimately the screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor, based upon Tom Perrotta's novel, that deserves the greatest credit. The script has a sense of humor that is quirky and vulgar in the manner of Monty Python --jokes come when you least expect and about things you haven't laughed at in a movie for along time -- infidelity, teenage sex and angst ; the unfortunate fact is that, like Monty Python, some people simply may not find the movie funny. They'll instead find it disturbing and sad; and it is, that's the strange thing. It is like trying to explain why the "Ministry of Silly Walks" is funny. You can't, you just either find it side-splittingly funny or you don't. I have not laughed so hard at a movie in along time as I did at Election, and while most of the laughter came from the script. The lines were taut and perfectly placed, the scenes were expertly structured. Mr. McAllister gives Tracy Flick a lecture about how all actions have consequences right after he sleeps with his wife's best friend, for instance.

The movie opens with a dull three minutes, but then comes alive with a statement about a certain body part of the young Miss Flick's that simply shocks you into falling into the movie. It is one of the rare movies that doesn't outwear its welcome. It begins to feel long towards the end, and when the dateline reads "1 Year Later" you know that it was obviously adapted from a novel. Yet the movie seems to make that jump successfully. By that point, you are so grateful for laughing the way you have and seeing a story and characters that different that you just want to remain with it, to enjoy the ride for however long it may last.

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