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High School High 

Alexander Payne's winning Election

Wednesday, Apr 21 1999
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Photo by Bob AkesterTHE YOUNG ACTRESS REESE WITHERSPOON HAS the sort of name that sounds like a Preston Sturges whimsy, like Hackensacker, Kockenlocker, Diddlebock or Waggleberry. Witherspoon even looks like a Sturges heroine, one of those corn-fed, milk-weaned, all-American types with a pinup's body and a face for comedy. Armed with a well-behaved nose, cornflower eyes and gleaming blond hair, she's prettier than the girl next door without being a certified knockout; her true secret weapon isn't a well-upholstered chest, but that weirdly, spectacularly malleable face. Deceptively inoffensive when it's at rest, Witherspoon's face is a remarkable resource when set in motion -- it has all the ductile possibilities of Silly Putty. It's the sort of countenance in which the features fit harmoniously one minute, only to scatter the next -- an eyebrow here, a glistening curl of lip there. There's a hint of madcap menace, even madness, when the pieces go flying, and that's exactly what writer-director Alexander Payne hooks into when he nabs Witherspoon in freeze frame, turning her funhouse face into a queasy Francis Bacon smear.

In Payne's sly, deviously funny new satire, Election, Witherspoon plays a Machiavelli-minded teenybopper in loafers and swinging mini, deliciously named Tracy Flick. A pitiless go-getter, Tracy has run for the presidency of the student body, a nearly hollow honor that she's nonetheless gone after with the ferocity of a bounty hunter. She's had some stiff opposition in her quest -- a popular jock, Paul (Chris Klein), his surly younger sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), and, most threateningly, the beloved civics teacher, Mr. McAllister, a proud, grievously self-righteous nebbish played to frowzy perfection by Matthew Broderick. McAllister (whose students call him "Mr. M.," a nickname he obviously thinks makes him "with it") is light-years out of his league when it comes to Tracy Flick, but the movie's dizzy fun, and its extraordinary, surprising, honestly felt pathos, is that no one -- not McAllister, not Tracy and certainly not Paul -- understands what's at stake in the race, even after the ballots are counted. The parlor trick of the movie is that who wins has nothing to do with this election; as in the outside world, as in other, bigger, maybe even more meaningful elections, it's how people lose that makes life really interesting.

The crucial scene in Election, when the pieces slide into place and fate is set on its course, comes midway through the story, when Tracy begins jumping up and down in a school hallway with a perilous violence, detonating in the air like a volley of firecrackers -- k-boom, k-boom, K-BOOM! Tracy thinks she has just won the presidency, and the victory has sent her flying. Again and again, she thrusts herself upward, not with an athlete's grace, but with the ferocious determination of a girl who, if given half a chance, could hurtle from the flats of Nebraska and land, feet first, ponytail sailing, on the welcome mat of the White House -- which is more or less where the indomitable Flick will likely turn up after her great leap forward. But there, midleap in the institutional hall, Payne stops the film (yet another nod to Sturges) and shows us Witherspoon's face in its full centrifugal disorder. Mr. M. peers from his classroom, and at that moment, confronted with a lizardy eye and temptress's mouth, decides to disrupt the election, a judgment that will not only prove ruinous to his own equilibrium, but will capsize what has been until now the ostensible order of things, turning a Midwestern high school into a brilliantly choreographed theater of cruelty, frailty and redemptive kindness.

THERE'S A SUGGESTION OF MONICA LEWINSKY IN Tracy Flick, but, happily, it's only a wink. Based on the Tom Perrotta novel, a quick read with a clever premise and lusterless prose that was conceived in the wake of the 1992 presidential race, Election has the virtue of topicality that makes for good social satire, but steers clear of making the sort of full-on equivalencies that weigh down the book. The script, written by Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, is jauntier, raunchier and more wily than the novel, which uses a high school election as a readymade metaphor for the absurdity of contemporary American politics. Payne and Taylor have honed Perrotta's winners and losers into sharper relief, and as a consequence, they've sharpened the satiric possibilities of the characters' actions even as they've deepened their core humanness. The movie is still about a high school election, as well as Bill Clinton and his supporting cast of betrayers and loyalists, but it's also, pointedly, about the ritual of shame and debasement that increasingly dominates our political discourse. And, as with Shampoo, the last great sophisticated political comedy made in America, Election is finally, necessarily, as much about sex as it is about politics -- wanting it, getting it, losing it.

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There's another difference between the novel and the film, a distinction that further separates Election from so many other comedies, successful or not. The difference is Tracy Flick, one of the most complex female characters to run riot through an American movie in memory. The character is so rich, so contradictory and so deeply, enduringly unsettling that it's almost a shock -- if she weren't so obviously homegrown, Tracy Flick could be French. (In some scenes, she comes across like a slightly sturdier Lolita, though one as shanghaied by her own ambition as she is by men.) Still, for all its complex characterizations, Election is an unabashedly American film, from its essential faith in human nature to its cynicism about politics. (If this were a French film, the terms would be reversed.) Set in Omaha, Nebraska (Payne's hometown), it has the gently worn look of real middle-class life that's gone missing in our movies -- there isn't an insinuation of glamour anywhere to be seen. The houses aren't ornamented with trophy ovens and five-figure designer barbecue grills, the principal's office is built out of cinderblock, and nobody drives sport utility vehicles, just trucks. The women have pudding thighs and overbites, while the faces of the men seem to perpetually wane with disappointment.

Payne's style is almost as unadorned as his characters. He shoots the film in a fairly modest, unassuming manner, only sporadically letting loose some stylistic flourish -- freezing the frame, deploying a self-consciously crude joke or the occasional sight gag, making sure to tweak his characters into caricature only at certain strategic moments. Part of that is timing, but part of it is love -- like the best directors, he knows not to condescend to either his characters or his audience. (Or at least he's learned; in his first feature, Citizen Ruth, he was guilty of patronizing both.) If nobody seems very happy in Omaha, it isn't that the director is taking a native son's revenge, or tendering some comprehensive statement about life in America; it's just Payne making the point that life is fundamentally a droning tragedy whose acts are, in the best of circumstances, separated by moments of high and low comedy. The same, of course, could be said of politics and, lie as we might, sex. There's an undertow of melancholy in Election, a wistfulness that can sometimes be hard to discern amid all the shattered alliances, petty deceptions, hilarious one-liners and deep mischief. Everyone connected to the election -- except for Paul, the blissfully unenlightened innocent -- has something to lose, which is why they're so desperate to win. And while that sounds pretty American, really it's just human.

ELECTION | Directed by ALEXANDER PAYNE Written by PAYNE and JIM TAYLOR | Produced by ALBERT BERGER, RON YERXA, DAVID GALE and KEITH SAMPLES | Released by Paramount | At Cineplex Broadway, AMC Century 14 and Cineplex Showcase

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