Election Screen 12 articles



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  • The treatment of this touchy material is impressive, neither gratuitous nor mincing, but this 1999 satirical comedy doesn't really go anywhere.

  • Director Alexander Payne follows up Citizen Ruth, his sharp, almost Sturges-like abortion-wars satire, with Election, a less ambitious film with a lower success rate. Nominally a high school comedy, Election is idiosyncratic enough to avoid the teensploitation trap but not sufficiently single-minded to wind up anywhere especially interesting.

  • I'm quite proud that the Skandies awarded Best Actress to Witherspoon that year—it's a courageously dislikable performance, forcing us to identify with Mr. M against our will. I just wish Election let his ethical (or is it moral?) failure in the classroom speak for itself, rather than diluting it with extracurricular boners and making it play more like Erection.

  • 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.

  • Witherspoon's broad, obsessive comic performance is bound to get the most attention, but Broderick does the best work of his career, finding an affecting spot between the all-purpose defiance of Ferris Bueller and the put-upon foil of his recent work. This underlying humanity keeps Election from collapsing into the fashionable cynicism of such lesser political satires as Wag The Dog, which glibly assume there's nothing left to salvage.

  • Payne's satire has given her and Broderick a bizarro Humbert-Lolita antagonism in which Tracy sexlessly goads Mr. M, who's having his own problems at home, to derail her train. It obsesses him to the point of blindness. It's among the shrewdly observed relationships that elevates "Election" to the level of quotidian sublime even if Payne has to climb through the trash to get there.

  • Election turns the usual conventions of the high-school comedy on their head. There's no prom night. Payne doesn't labour the tension between the jocks and the nerds, or try to show school life from the rebel's perspective. The film may have been made by MTV, but its fairground-style music (by Rolfe Kent) sounds as if it were borrowed from some old Mack Sennett comedy.

  • Like Citizen Ruth, Election is ultimately radical in its ironies. Its dilemmas of character, fate, freedom, and the compromised energies powering the human universe remain irresolvable as evidence piles up on all sides of every issue.

  • Again and again in Election, Payne lets us see the biological imperative showing through the transparent drapery of higher sentiments. More than once we’re shown someone grimacing through tears, and whether the reason for tears is heartbreak or a broken leg, these moments register as images of animals in pain. (To recall the animal in man doesn’t mean discounting the human, but good luck getting that over to the binary minds who dismiss Payne.)

  • Tracy’s power makes her an outsider: although her peers elect her, they don’t accept her. However, Election also suggests that being an outsider is itself a source of power. Tracy’s authority provides an opportunity to resist formulaic representations of teenage femininity and sexuality. Attractive and icky all at once, she is neither in-the-shadows nerdy nor loved-by-all cool. But she is _aggressive_. And even more than being aggressively ambitious, Tracy is aggressively herself.

  • Contested election results, a dubious recount, a populist demagogue running on a platform of sheer nihilism, a hyperqualified female candidate punished for her unseemly ambition—all these developments still lay in the country’s future when Electioncame out, but the movie already felt timeless in a way that only great comedy can. Over the nearly two decades since, Election’s resonance has continued to grow and deepen.

  • Beyond [the simplest level], in the microcosm of high school sociology, is one of the most devastating portraits of America's pathological identification with exceptionalism, and how high the stakes can seem even within—especially within—the deepest recesses of flyover country. Even more so than Fargo, Election is the decade's preeminent Midwestern farce.

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