Election (1999)

2016 #74
Alexander Payne | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The third feature (but first you’re likely to have heard of) by writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska; he also co-wrote Jurassic Park III, did you know that? I didn’t know that) stars Matthew Broderick as a high school teacher who tries to stop Reese Witherspoon’s perfect student from becoming president of the school council.

With Witherspoon largest on the poster, and the title being Election, you’d naturally assume that’s where the film’s focus lies. Really, it’s about Broderick and the disintegration of his life, from a happily married man and dedicated teacher beloved by his students, to… well, where he ends up (no spoilers!) The poor guy’s really put through the ringer, though a lot of it is of his own making, so how much we sympathise is questionable.

Indeed, the whole film has a conflicted idea of identification. It has you side with a teacher who wants to tear down the dreams of a bright, dedicated, enthusiastic young student. And I don’t mean it tries to get you to side with him — you do side with him. But then it proceeds to tear his whole life apart, as if in punishment for what he wanted to do; and, by extension, it punishes you for wanting him to do it. So maybe those ideas of identification aren’t actually conflicted — which might imply it doesn’t know where it wants you to lay your support — but, rather, it knows exactly who you’re going to support, and thinks you’re a bad, bad person for doing so.

Broderick is suitably exasperated as the man whose life slowly falls apart, and Witherspoon is primly perfect as the overly-chirpy student — I’m sure she must remind everyone of someone they knew at school, and that’ll just make you dislike her all the more. (If there wasn’t someone like that in your class… are you sure it wasn’t you? Just sayin’.) It’s also the debut of Chris Klein (who went on to quality cinema like American Pie, the Rollerball remake, and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li), as the nice-but-dim jock who Broderick taps to stand against Witherspoon in the election. His younger sister, played by Jessica Campbell (who stopped acting a couple of years later, it seems), is a jilted lesbian rebel who also stands in the election on a platform of wanting to destroy the system, and is clearly the film’s most likeable character. Or maybe that’s just me.

A bit like Office Space, Election is the kind of indie comedy that is more wryly amusing than laugh-out-loud hilarious (though it has its moments), and is no doubt more appealing the more you feel like you know the characters. I think Payne has matured into more interesting (and, sometimes, funnier) work, but this was clearly a strong starting point.

4 out of 5

This review is part of 1999 Week.

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2 thoughts on “Election (1999)

  1. Oh, my high school had a Tracy Flick alright! I think Reese played her to perfection. I agree with you that Election is mostly not laugh-out-loud funny. I think Alexander Payne’s satire has lost some of its bite since Election. I wouldn’t say his films have gotten worse but he’s definitely changed his style.

    Liked by 1 person

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