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Writer-director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt; Sideways) turns out an exceptional comedy about once every three years. His1996 Citizen Ruth is an unlikely comedy about a glue-sniffing delinquent caught in a tug of war between reproduction rights and pro-life activists. Payne's acute sensitivity to the weaknesses of ordinary people also fuels Election, a hilarious satire about Man as a political and sexual animal. The arena is an ordinary high school and the hero is a principled fellow who normally would never do anything immoral or unethical. He even teaches the distinction between morals and ethics in his history class, and he's completely sincere. But life refuses to stay that simple.
Election shows what happens when emotions get the better of people, something that happens to all of us but usually not with disastrous consequences. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) watches in horror as his best buddy, fellow teacher Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik) tosses his life away by sleeping with a young student. Jim's confusion is compounded by other factors. His own wife Diane (Molly Hagan) has him on a strict make-a-baby schedule, and he intuits that Dave's ex Linda (Delaney Driscoll) -- Diane's best friend -- is flirting with him. Then Jim finds out that the underage girl that Dave "crossed the line" with is Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), an annoyingly aggressive super-student so charged with the desire to achieve that she frantically waves her hand to answer every question in class.
The Jim McAllister / Tracy Flick conflict is one we've never seen in movies. Teachers must deal with a spectrum of attitudes from their students, and Tracy simply rubs Jim the wrong way. She's convinced that her personal destiny elevates her above everyone else, and that she deserves special treatment in all situations. Only Jim and the principal know of Tracy's affair with Dave, and Jim takes out his resentment in petty ways, like not calling on Tracy in class. When Tracy runs unopposed for the office of student president Dave feels compelled to "cross the line" in a different way. He actively encourages another student, the good-natured Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her. Tracy figures out the connection immediately, and the war is on.
Election's central image is Reese Witherspoon's eager face, up at the crack of dawn, scrubbed and ready to collect petition signatures for her candidacy. She offers free bubble gum in a goldfish bowl; later on she'll give out cupcakes -- 400 free cupcakes that her booster mom (Colleen Camp) stayed up all night baking. Tracy Flick has that eager, intense face that wins debates and attracts scholarships. Later on, Jim is convinced that Tracy has ripped up all of Paul's campaign posters, but he can't prove it. Little Miss Perfect thinks she's superior and gets all the breaks. The scandal that ruined Dave's life hasn't touched her. Jim becomes determined to see that Tracy doesn't win ... against his own better interest.
Jim McAllister's Omaha high school turns out to be a hormonal hotbed. Candidate Paul Metzler's little sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a budding lesbian, becomes furious when her would-be girlfriend starts dating Paul instead. Tammy launches her own candidacy for president, running on the anarchic slogan "Who Cares?" The principal, naturally, wants to expel her on the spot.
Alas, Jim isn't immune to similar pressures. He resents his meager paycheck and gets onto a slippery slope with the now unattached Linda Novotny, jeopardizing his marriage. When Jim drags himself into school he's confronted with the smug face of his archenemy Tracy Flick. One way or another, Tracy must be destroyed.
Election benefits from razor-sharp observations of human behavior. No matter how sweet Paul Metzler is, his younger sister Tammy hates him because she's fundamentally unhappy without a girlfriend. Jim McAllister is a multiple Teacher of the Year award winner whose commitment to ethics can't shield him from the proverbial slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. He has sex fantasies like anyone else, and the right combination of events is too much for him. A bee stings Jim's eyelid on the day of the student election, giving him the aspect of The Walking Wounded. His whole life is imploding, for no reason at all. He knows that he's still the same nice guy, but nobody will understand. He's God's Lonely Man. Election compares him to a museum exhibit sculpture of a frightened naked cave man. We may have morals and ethics, but in our emotions we might as well still be confused troglodytes.
Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's dialogue is near flawless; the kids talk as they should and there's not a stereotype in sight. Matthew Boroderick is sensational as the sensitive nice guy who gets in too deep, and Reese Witherspoon hits a career high. Her Tracy Flick is a true original, the student that gives overachievers a bad name just by following her nature. Payne nails the all-consuming rage that Tracy levels at anything that comes between her and her goals. Whenever she goes into feral overdrive, a wailing scream bursts onto the soundtrack ... her cave-dwelling instincts are as acute as anyone's. 1 The best thing about Election is that we exit hating no character and understanding all of them -- even if we play-fair plodders secretly wish to sabotage the selfish achievers that elbow us out of their way.
Paramount's Election has been steadily rising to classic status, and this bright and sharp Blu-ray release will hopefully entice more fans to check it out. The color and clarity are remarkable, and another testament to the talent of cinematographer James Glennon (El Norte). Much of the film takes place in the corridors of an ordinary high school, yet the film still looks beautiful.
The one extra is an amusing commentary by Alexander Payne that's well worth a listen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The "primitive" scream-chant is an inspired repurposing of Ennio Morricone's main theme from the spaghetti western Navajo Joe (1966). When Tracy vandalizes Paul Metzler's campaign posters, the theme continues into a full Morricone guitar piece ... the same riff borrowed by Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill Part 2.
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