starring: Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon
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.