Funny, tough and very clever, "Election" is a telling look at contemporary social and political mores. Set in a nondescript high school deep in America's heartland, "Election" explores human nature and this country's one true cash crop blinding self-interest. Not since "Heathers" has high school been so devilishly satirized.
Yes, you read correctly, "Election" is set in high school. And yes, I know you are weary and wary of yet another teen-based look at life, but the R-rated "Election" is a sharp and merciless comedy intended for adults. Co-written and directed by Alex Payne ("Citizen Ruth") and fueled by powerhouse performances from Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, the movie's wicked schemes accomplish the near impossible: making us feel good about people being very, very bad.
Witherspoon plays Tracy Flick, a steel-willed Miss Goody Two Shoes who's unopposed in her run for president of George Washington Carver High. Equal parts Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, Tracy is never evil. She's just a ruthless overachiever with a need to be a part of everything. Broderick plays her counterpoint, popular social studies teacher Jim McAllister, whom everyone calls "Mr. M." Named teacher of the year an unprecedented three times, Mr. M is the type of teacher who means it when he says "I got involved; I made a difference."
But there's bad blood between Tracy and Mr. M. It seems Tracy seduced her geometry teacher, a good friend of Mr. M's. And when the poor besotted teacher read more into the moment than she intended, Tracy told the principal about the tryst and got him fired.
When one of the school's most popular jocks pulls up lame, Mr. M has a brilliant idea: get him to run against Tracy. Since Paul (Chris Klein) can't plays sports for a while, Mr. M convinces him it's his civic duty to run. Paul, being none too bright, falls for it.
Tracy, of course, takes his entrance into the race with her usual aplomb. After all, she's destined to be school president and no one can convince her otherwise.
Things get trickier, though, when a third candidate enters the race. Paul's sexually undecided sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) joins the fray to get back at her brother who apparently sidetracked the affections of her girlfriend. The usually friendless Tammy finds her popularity soaring after she delivers her presidential platform. Were she to be elected, her first rule of business would be to dismantle the student government so no one would have to sit through another "stupid election assembly."
As Tracy, Witherspoon is perfectly cast. With her bouncy blonde good looks, she's wholesomeness personified. Her Tracy is everywhere at once: working on the yearbook, playing Hodel in the school production of "Fiddler on the Roof" or baking 480 cupcakes. Witherspoon is simply delightful as this Iron Butterfly in training; she's so cheery she's scary.
Broderick is equally well cast as Mr. M. He has all the tics and quirks and introspection needed to pull off such a role. And as he proved in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," Broderick is adept at voice-over narration. Which is good because director Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor get some of their best results by using multiple voice-overs. Each of the characters has his or her shot at providing the audience with after-the-fact commentary on unfolding events. Even here the competition rages, as each tries to get us to accept their personal version as gospel.
Newcomers Klein and Campbell make the most of their debuts, giving us two very different siblings. Klein wins us over with his dumb-jock sincerity. His Paul seeks serious spiritual guidance from "The Celestine Prophecy," but falls asleep trying to read it. Had "Election" not been graced with such a terrific performance from Witherspoon, Campbell could have easily stolen the show in her smaller role. She brings down the house with her genuinely felt anarchism and then touches us with her heartfelt sadness when her love goes unrequited.
By the end of the movie, few people or institutions have been left unscathed. But the movie's humor doesn't come just from the farcical situations. Payne and Taylor deserve credit for the character's tongue-in-cheek dialogue. A nearly flawless parable of American ambition, "Election" teaches a valuable lesson without ever sounding preachy. Its cynical view of democracy, life, love and the pursuit of happiness packs a deliciously nasty punch amid all the
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