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Alexander Payne's high-school Election

By Gary Susman

MAY 10, 1999:  One of the many disingenuous responses to the Littleton shootings is the shocked discovery by many grown-ups that high-school students routinely react to difference with cruelty, and that many kids find nihilism and anarchy perfectly reasonable defenses. Such adults have forgotten not only their own high-school years (for 'twas ever thus), but also that the petty tyrannies of the cafeteria don't stop after graduation.

Now, as if to remind us that we never really escape from high school, comes Election, a teen comedy for adults. Based on a novel by Tom Perrotta that uses a high-school student-council election as an allegorical satire of the 1992 presidential race, Alexander Payne's film indicts all strata of the high school (including the teachers and parents and, by implication, all of America) for succumbing to the smallest of small-minded, self-absorbed, self-delusional behavior.

Payne often gets compared to Preston Sturges, who seems to be the last American filmmaker anyone can remember who was both unflinchingly satirical and consistently crowd-pleasing (though it's arguable whether Payne is either of those). But whereas Sturges crammed together a variety of selfish individuals to depict a crazy society, Payne breaks down an insane society into solipsistic individuals.

The director's first film, 1996's Citizen Ruth, was a similarly nervy satire on the abortion debate that in caricaturing both sides made each seem noble and callous; it tried to remain aloof and above the fray yet seemed to cop out for not taking a stand. Election (co-scripted by Jim Taylor) has the same strength and weakness. The point of view shifts among four protagonists, with each revealing unwittingly the self-serving motivations behind his or her ostensibly selfless actions. Payne's evenhanded, pox-on-all-your-houses approach spares no one, but it also leaves you with no one to root for.

At first, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is running unopposed for school president. A friendless overachiever, she's a cousin to the Machiavellian Max Fischer of Rushmore, but her ambition extends well beyond high school, and unlike the creative Max, she has all the spontaneity and wit of her professed idol, Elizabeth Dole. The perky, poised Tracy rubs student-council faculty adviser Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) the wrong way, and not just because her march to victory serves as counterpoint to his own secret frustrations. Recognizing her ruthless ambition, the civics teacher believes it's his duty to the republic to nip her political career in the bud. He recruits Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), the popular, sweet, dim quarterback, to run against Tracy. Paul's sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a lesbian whose girlfriend dumped her for Paul, is in turn inspired to run against her brother.

Tracy runs on her record, as if her years of brownnosing simply entitled her to the office (she's the Bush candidate). Paul runs on his Clinton-like charisma. Tammy taps into voter apathy and nearly incites a populist riot by promising to dissolve the student council, but her seemingly erratic behavior causes her campaign to self-destruct early, à la Ross Perot. Mr. McAllister's desperate meddling brings the race to a scandalous climax that leaves everyone with what he or she deserves, in spades.

The richness of the film lies in the complexity of the characters' motivations, as illustrated by the often hilarious gap between the straight-faced performances and Payne's mischievously ugly visual style. Broderick, with his shockingly gray temples and forced cheer, is Ferris Bueller in midlife rot, an emblem of promise betrayed. The jut-jawed Witherspoon conveys both careerist drive and pouty anger at others' failure to appreciate her hard work. Klein's Paul is an egotist yet sweetly guileless in a Keanu-like way. Campbell radiates an outcast loneliness that may hide the most cleverly manipulative mind of all. Payne finds something sympathetic in each of them, yet he also has devices (bleak lighting, unflattering freeze frames) to make them all look distorted and hideous. It's no wonder that Election stays with you long after you leave the theater, in ways that are funny and painfully disturbing. Payne's camera traps his characters, like the rest of us, in high-school humiliation forever.

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