5 December 2005 | evanston_dad
Flick for President?
The Academy Award attention heaped on "Sideways" helped to make Alexander Payne a mainstream name among casual film goers, but many of us knew about his talent as a film maker long before. And his two more recent films--"Sideways" and "About Schmidt"--have been much gentler (thought still terrific) than his earlier efforts. Before "Election," Payne had already made "Citizen Ruth," a caustic, bracing satire of the abortion issue, and "Election" continued his penchant for harsh, uncomfortable comedy. I mean that in a good way, though. Payne's movies are funny, but they make you uneasy for laughing at them, and they have sharp, intelligent insights into the attitudes that drive American values.
In "Election," Payne uses a high school class presidential election as an opportunity to lampoon everything that's goofy about the American political system. Just as in our national elections for president, the winner is not necessarily the person with the most integrity, and honesty is a liability, not a virtue. The person who is willing to play dirtiest comes out on top, and elections aren't about who is most qualified but rather about who is most popular. And, the best part about the movie is its acknowledgement of voter apathy. Most Americans don't really give a damn, something that makes them not so different from the majority of high schoolers who don't even understand the point of having a class president to begin with. In fact, in the film's best scene, the assembly at which each candidate gives her/his campaign speech, one of the candidates (who joins the race out of spite) gets the best reception from the crowd when she encourages everyone not to vote at all.
Reese Witherspoon gives a wonderful performance as Tracy Flick, the school's most likely to succeed, whose goodie-goodie exterior hides the fact that she's willing to do just about anything to get ahead. Matthew Broderick is refreshingly unlikable as a social studies teacher who would like to see Tracy fail just once, until the fact that his own life is falling apart turns this wish into an obsession. And Chris Klein has some fun as the dopey, Jesus-following popular guy who becomes Tracy's arch rival, but never really even knows it.
Payne doesn't tidy up his film's moral messages. On the one hand, Tracy is obnoxious, and we want to see her fail as much as Broderick's character does. But she does know how to play the game, and isn't that part of what makes someone a good leader? We sympathize with Broderick up to a point, but his motives really are driven by a personal vendetta, not by any altruistic ideal of right vs. wrong. So if you normally need someone to root for in order to enjoy a movie, you're probably not going to like this one.
But who expects a hero?...I mean, come on, we're talking about American politics here.