Published May 1, 1999
Election was directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, the promising young director of Citizen Ruth. Once again, he shows that he has real talent in this often hilarious tale of life at George Washington Carver High in Omaha. Like that other recent success, Rushmore, the film looks at high school as something of a metaphor for life itself, but it is a much more closely observed study of high school itself and of its own peculiar idiocy. The election of the title is for student government president, the most prominent candidate for which office is a poisonous child called Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) who has already mastered Clintonian rhetoric and Clintonian phoniness. She couples assurances that “I care about Carver” with pathetic stories of alleged suffering, as in the case of one student said to be “alienated from his own homeroom.” Tracy’s nemesis is a teacher called Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) who, out of sheer dislike for her insufferable smarminess encourages a dumb football hero called Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her and calls down upon his head her terrible wrath.
There are two subplots which fit together nicely with the main story. One involves a former colleague called Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik) who, having had an affair with Tracy, is given the sack and forced to get out of town, leaving behind him a wife whom McAllister begins to think will be receptive to the idea of an affair with him. The other concerns Paul Metzler’s lesbian sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), who at the last minute jumps into the election campaign as a third candidate against her own brother and the abominable Tracy, but whose real purpose is to get herself expelled from George Washington Carver and sent to Immaculate Heart, a Catholic girls’ school some of whose soccer players she is lusting for. The suppressed jubilation she displays on being told that she has succeeded in incurring just this supposed punishment is worthy of Br’er Rabbit being flung into the briar patch.
In a way the central episode of the film comes as the candidates are giving their speeches to an assembly about their plans for GWCHS. As is suggested above, Tracy’s is an exercise in falseness and Paul’s in bumbling stupidity (though equally false), but Tammy soon has the crowd on its feet, cheering her to the rafters, when she says that her first act as president will be to abolish assemblies like that which she is addressing, since “who cares about this stupid election anyway?” The dangerous moment at which someone suddenly decides to stop playing the game that everyone finds hellishly unpleasant but no one knows how to get out of, short of a Dave Novotny-like cataclysm, is as true an image of revolutionary subversion that has to be crushed—even if it is at the cost of Terrible Tracy’s becoming student body president.
This is all very nicely done, and I even liked the rather disturbing parallels suggested between Tracy and Mrs Novotny, both of whom use the pose of moral righteousness as a means of destroying other people for their own purposes. Indeed, if you include as a third example Tammy’s machinations to get herself pitched in among the luscious flesh of the Immaculate Heart, you could argue that the picture is in essence a misogynist’s fantasy. More importantly, however, it ends up being too lacking in nuance or subtlety. For morality is more than just the game which is played with such skill, in their different ways, by these scheming women. And to suggest as Payne comes close to doing that the game is all there is to it is merely nihilistic and thus unserious, which is as grave a fault in a comedy as in anything else. Oddly the film is that very rare thing in Hollywood, a nearly-successful satire, but one which doesn’t quite come off because it cannot rise above its Hollywood assumptions.