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Just When You Thought The Electoral Process Couldn't Get Any Sleazier, Along Comes 'Election.'

By James DiGiovanna

MAY 17, 1999:  IT'S SO ODD to see a good movie this time of year, I'm at a loss for what to say about Election. Umm, go see it?

This is the second good film in a row from MTV Productions (the last was Go), which almost redeems them for that pathetic 200 Cigarettes. Election is a wicked (some would say "deliciously wicked") story about an election for class president in a Nebraska high school.

Directed by Alexander Payne, who made the cynical, smart and funny Citizen Ruth, Election is a cinematic oddity wherein most of the dialogue is in the form of voice-overs, and such old-fashioned effects as freeze-frame and double-exposure reassert themselves with as much life and force as all the computer animation that George Lucas can excrete in a lifetime of egestions.

Reese Witherspoon plays the overly ambitious student who will be elected student body president by any means necessary. She's the ultimate brown-noser and grade-grubber, her perfectly coifed 'do and demure jumpers covering an interior life that makes Richard Nixon seem like Blind Lemon Jefferson.

But there's more to Witherspoon's character "Tracy Flick" than her goody-two-shoes soullessness would imply. Her favorite teacher sums up the pleasures of having her as a student by noting that "her pussy gets so wet you wouldn't believe it."

This leads to his dismissal, and causes his best friend, civics instructor Jim McAllister (played by Matthew Broderick), to be extremely wary of her.

Thus, when McAllister finds out Flick's planning to take her conscience-free bag of tricks into student politics, he convinces sappy do-gooder and injured ex-football star Paul Metzler to run against her. The angelically stupid Metzler is prone to saying things like "gee, she's supernice," in a painfully sincere voice.

Unfortunately for Metzler, he draws his sister's wrath when he unwittingly steals away her girlfriend. Unaware that his sister's "best friend" is something more, he notes in his voice-over narrative that he "sure was surprised the day Lisa Flanagan asked me for a ride home and wound up blowing me."

This sends his sister, Tammy, into the race for president in an effort to get revenge. In her stump speech she infuriates everyone except her beatific brother (who remains baffled by virtually everything she does) by denouncing the entire election for the sham popularity contest that it is. Her speech, which closes with, "So vote for me, or don't vote for me, or don't vote at all--who cares?" winds up getting the best reaction from the jaded student body, even as it gets the candidate suspended from school.

The story of political machinations by pubescent future potentates is certainly ripe for the kind of no-heroes approach director Payne gives it. All the characters are either wicked, stupid or somewhat pathetic, providing a nice balance to what would have been a simple story of good and bad in the hands of most H-wood auteurs.

Payne directs each actor differently, so there's an interesting melange of styles. Witherspoon is comically soulless, able to turn from a pout to a camera-ready smile in the blink of an eye. Broderick is the ultimate self-deluded loser, basically the guy Ferris Bueller was going to grow up to be. Chris Klein, as Paul Metzler, is impossibly good, kind and stupid. He basically acts like Keanu Reeves, if Keanu were acting that way on purpose. The most well-rounded character is bitter, rebellious teen lesbian Tammy Metzler, whose dream is to piss her parents off enough to get them to send her to an all-girls Catholic school.

The unnatural acting styles are complemented by old-fashioned camera tricks. When Witherspoon starts into her canned speeches, Payne freezes the shot, leaving her with a twisted expression as Matthew Broderick's voice-over explains her vicious, Reagan-era, over-achieving character. When Broderick has sex with his wife, who in an effort to conceive eggs him on with "fill me up...fill me up," cheesy overlays of Witherspoon's face appear to take up the chant.

There's also a plethora of semi-subliminal background images, like the closely aligned letters of campaign buttons that say "PICK FLICK." A sign outside a motel where Broderick goes for an assignation reads "Welcome Seed Dealers." The kind of inspirational posters that mid-level executives who've had soul-ectomies buy are strewn about Tracy Flick's bedroom. And when one of the characters goes to New York, a montage of scenes from the city set the stage, though they're all stock footage from the early '70s.

The combination of these small touches with dialogue perfectly suited to its characters' odd delivery--and a mean-spirited story about meaningless ambition--make Election the funniest and most astute film since Rushmore.

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