By a landslide

Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon are wickedly winning in a right-on, cutting satire about a high school election. It'll get your vote.

May 07, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

With wicked, blackhearted glee, "Election" rescues social satire from the icy remove of irony and slams it straight into the solar plexus, where it belongs.

A stinging commentary on democracy, sexual mores and hypocrisy, the film pokes fun at nearly everyone in its path, and its exacting scalpel penetrates all the way to the bone.

Directed by Alexander Payne with an appealing mix of tartness and sincerity, "Election" stars Matthew Broderick as Jim McAllister, an Omaha high school civics teacher whose dedication to his profession is equaled only by the adoration of his students. Indeed, Mr. M., as his charges call him, is a friend to nearly all of his students, except for one: Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), the class overachiever, whose perky know-it-all-ism has crawled under McAllister's skin and settled firmly in his craw.

When Tracy announces that she is running -- unopposed -- for student council president, McAllister finally goes over the edge and drafts a popular football player, Paul, to run against her. And that's when events spiral downward into a vortex of betrayal, mendacity, hubris and plain spite, and no one emerges from the vortex as quite the person they seemed.

As he did with his previous film, "Citizen Ruth" -- another spiky tale in which no one gets off easy -- Payne has used his native Omaha to the fullest extent possible, milking its flat environs for all the generic blandness that they're worth.

But Payne doesn't let this colorless habitat stifle his own highly developed imagination. "Election" swings between Midwestern realism and more fanciful metaphor with singular ease, whether it puts McAllister in the middle of a Fellini-esque dream or subtly uses the lowly apple to communicate temptation, re- ward and, ultimately, punishment (the serpent has been replaced by the common bumblebee).

Payne also has assembled a fine cast of Omaha players to accompany Witherspoon and Broderick, who dispatches a difficult role with terrific restraint and comic intelligence (part of the fun is how recently he seemed to play a high school student himself).

Chris Klein, who plays the dimly earnest Paul, seems to have been plucked from a real-life Omaha high school (which indeed he was, having been discovered by Payne during his senior year). And Jessica Campbell, as Paul's sister Tammy, plays the role of an angry young lesbian with as much passion and grit as a mouthful of braces will allow.

Still, "Election" doesn't cuddle up to even these appealing characters. This isn't "Rushmore," which couched its edgy elements in a more genial goofiness. Despite Tracy Flick's prim example, most of the teen-age characters here engage in sex and drugs and foul language with abandon. And "Election" wants filmgoers to know that such actions have consequences, and that they're usually painful and everlasting -- or at least they should be.

Payne couldn't have predicted two real-life stories that cast a certain pall over "Election": When Paul utters a throwaway joke that at least he's not dead, the murdered jocks of Columbine come to mind. And Tracy's career trajectory looks quite similar to that of another driven young woman, named Lewinsky. But these unfortunate parallels should not detract from "Election's" rigorous moral sensibility and dazzling originality.

This is one movie that has taken to heart the axiom that comedy is best when it hurts.

`Election'

Starring Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell

Directed by Alexander Payne

Released by Paramount Pictures

Rated R (strong sexuality, sex-related dialogue and language, and a scene of drug use)

Running time 104 minutes

Sun score ****

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