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April 1, 2016

Election (1999)
Director: Alexander Payne
Actors: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein

reesewitherspoon_election_gallery__568x400.jpg (300×211)

Synopsis: Teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), presides over an increasingly acrimonious school council election, while his home-life also takes a turn for the worse….

Review: Over the last twenty years, has there been a greater wit and documenter of ‘Middle America’ than Alexander Payne? You’d be hard pushed to find two more tonally perfect American screwball tragicomedies than the exceptional Sideways and Nebraska, and though many commentators have also tried to place Payne’s Election in the same pantheon, I don’t quite share the same enthusiasm.

Coming before Sideways and Nebraska – in fact, this was only Payne’s second feature film – Election‘s greatest fault is a certain gaucheness: a tyrannical ‘sameness’ of tone where Payne doesn’t trust his audience to ‘get’ his piece’s crashing subtext, so he batters them over the head with it for nearly two hours. Take, for example, the opening montage where Payne sets up his battle of wills between balshy, obsessive student, Tracy Flick, and the seemingly relaxed and unflappable high school teacher, Jim McAllister: there are the telegraphed, contradictory, ‘ironic’ voicovers, and the clear visceral difference between the maniacal editing of Flick’s scenes versus the dowdy, affable pace of McAllister’s. Then there are the freeze-frames which halt the narration – coming once or twice initially, they’re extremely witty and help undercut the pomposity of the (unreliable) narrators very well, but once one assimilates this is a technique Payne is going to plunder monotonously throughout the film without any variety, it soon loses its effect. Even the music is too obviously “screwball”. If Payne had played against the material more – offering some opposition to his exposé of the characters’ narcissism (possibly even dropping voiceover altogether?) he might have been rewarded with a more reflective and truly resonant film.

This is not to say that ‘cartoonish’ isn’t a viable aesthetic for a filmmaker, and it’s certainly never done the Coen brothers any harm. There is after all a certain truth in the caricature, and in a way, the relentless, merciless bent of the film perhaps offers a more successful satire of Americana than the smarmier, ‘upmarket’ attempt at suburban pastiche that came out to much acclaim in the same year – Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. And if nothing else, certainly Reese Witherspoon is reading from the right hymn sheet in Election‘s stinging rhetoric: her incarnation of the dementedly ambitious Tracy Flick is a deceptively deep and masterful performance – Witherspoon’s steely eyes, purposely bold chin and suspiciously twee blonde locks all suggest the arch manipulator and ‘politician’ underneath.

The issue is that this ‘cartoonish’ verve is in service to supposedly earnest truths. Payne seems to possess zero compassion for his characters amid the mediocre canvas he paints: dowdy cars, naff motel rendez-vous’, Walgreen superstores, clumsy attempts at extra-marital affairs, and an eye for the overwhelming drabness of the suburban Omaha locale. It’s almost as if Payne is enjoying gloating at the truly wretched creatures he has unearthed, in the creation of a nigh-on godless world, but in conjuring this and delivering it so zealously and one-dimensionally to his audience, Payne omits any semblance of compassion or humanity (there’s marginal pathos at best) – which when injected into the still similar concerns and milieus of his later works greatly increased their richness. (April 2016)

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