Week 28 — Nebraska
Election (1999), directed by Alexander Payne, written by Tom Perrotta (novel), Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, with Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Chris Klein and Jessica Campbell
When I was a senior or junior in high school I ran for student council treasurer — or maybe I just considered running. I’m a little foggy on the details. All I remember for certain is saying some mean things about another girl who was planning on running — behind her back. She later confronted me about what I had said at a fundraiser for our Senior prom, a car wash or something. I can’t remember exactly what I said. Maybe I called her fat or stupid. Something juvenile. I’m friends with this girl now on Facebook, so I guess there’s no hard feelings. Either that, or it’s all part of a master plan for revenge.
In real life, school elections are nothing like the school election which is the basis of Election. School elections are nothing like real-life elections, a yearly practice in which one group of ass-kissers competes against another group of ass-kissers to see who can sink to the lowest level and possibly get their candidate into office.
Or maybe it’s just one of the subtle differences between New Jersey, where I grew up, and Nebraska, the setting of Election.
Reese Witherspoon stars in Election as Tracy Flick, a real go-getter of a student at a large high school in Omaha, Nebraska. Blonde-haired, perky Tracy is an overachiever, as we learn from a montage and series of voice-overs. She’s involved in various extracurriculer activities. Her crowning achievement is being elected student council president multiple times.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Just because Tracy has won multiple elections doesn’t make her popular, despite most elections not being much more than popularity contests. She’s never had any competition. Tracy gets the job because nobody else wants it.
Most students can’t stand poor Tracy. Nor can the staff of her high school. Social studies teacher Jim McAllister, played by Matthew Broderick, hates Tracy. Why? At one point, a colleague of his named Dave — a fellow teacher and a friend — was having sex with Tracy, which wound up costing McAllister’s friend both his job and his marriage. With Tracy being a kid, she should have been perceived as a victim in the situation — but McAllister’s loathing of Tracy is not for any real reason — or at least not any good reason. McAllister says it best later in the film: “Mostly it was her face.” It’s not unlike how I feel about the actress Reese Witherspoon. I know I shouldn’t hate her, but when I see her on the covers of Sweet Home Alabama or Legally Blonde One or Legally Blonde Two or whatever … my automatic reaction is “dislike.”
McAllister wants to hurt Tracy the best way he knows how — by costing her the school election, which he oversees. He recruits popular jock Paul Metzler to run against Tracy. Paul is played by Chris Klein, the dopey jock from American Pie who falls for Mena Suvari’s character. McAllister urges Paul to enter the election using the analogy of pears and oranges. He asks Paul: If all you had to eat were pears, I bet you’d really like pears, wouldn’t you? If Tracy is an apple, McAllister wants Paul to be his “orange.”
“I also like bananas,” Paul replies.
Paul’s sister Tammy — who may or may not be a lesbian — throws her hat into the ring as well. Tammy enters the election to try and get revenge on her brother for unknowingly stealing away her girlfriend.
Between Tracy, Paul, and Tammy, you have three very different personalities each running for class president for three very different reasons.
You have Paul the puppet.
You have Tammy, who’s running out of spite.
Then you have Tracy. While Tracy just wants the position because it’ll look good on her college transcript, when Paul and Tammy enter the race, it becomes something more.
Then there’s McAllister — bitter, unhappy, alone … teaching the same basic lessons every day to the same students, year after year. The faces change, but that’s about it. I used to want to be a teacher. After watching this movie: no thank you.
In his personal life, McAllister is struggling with his marriage. He winds up pursuing Dave’s estranged wife Linda. This may have more to do with his obsession over Tracy then he realizes — Tracy sleeps with Dave, so McAllister tries to sleep with Linda. This is fairly obvious when McAllister is having sex with his wife — the two are attempting to have a child with no success. While making love in a “certain position,” McAllister sees the face of Linda superimposed on his wife’s back talking dirty talk, which then morphs into Tracy’s face. That scene, in particular, kind of straddles the line between “Haha” and “Ick.”
Given who directed Election, I wasn’t surprised to be feeling uncomfortable. Alexander Payne made one film, Citizen Ruth, before Election, which was distributed by MTV Films. Citizen Ruth, released in 1996, is about a glue-sniffing single mom played by Laura Dern, who inadvertenly becomes the center of a pro-life/pro-choice debate. It was also set in Nebraska. After Election, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Payne directed Jack Nicholson in About Schimdt (2003), followed by Sideways (2005). His next movie will be released in 2011, The Descendents, starring George Clooney.
Payne’s films are dark, generally revolving around fairly unlikeable characters. They focus on the uglier parts of the human psyche. Whether it be Ruth from Citizen Ruth or Jim McAllister from Election, they’re certainly not the types of people you would like to know personally, although truthfully they probably are the types of people you know personally. Pessimistic? Without a doubt. When Payne offers one of these characters a glimmer of hope, it’s like beating a man half to death with a tire iron and then offering him a band-aid. Still, his movies are honest, which is why they’re so funny despite being so depressing. They’re also slightly more accessible then, say, the films of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness), which really do cross the line.
I was still surprised that Election was as dark as it was, mainly based on the poster art and the fact that it was an “MTV Film.” I suspect more than one parent sat down to watch this with their teen and spent most of the movie having to hold their jaw in place. That’s ignoring the fact that the movie is rated R.
Election‘s not as deep as About Schmidt or Sideways. It’s a good companion piece to Citizen Ruth, though somewhat lighter in tone. It’s Payne’s most mainstream film, so take that for what it’s worth. I thought it was hilarious, even if I wasn’t floored by the casting. While Witherspoon is perfect in her role, Broderick is … well … Broderick, and Chris Klein is Chris Klein. Nothing special. Like with most of Payne’s movies, it’s the script that really shines. It doesn’t take a master thespian to make its words come across as funny.
Next week: Vegas, baby.
Election on YouTube
Matt D.’s Top Five Movie Antiheroes
5. Lester Burnham from American Beauty (1999) — Good: Doesn’t sleep with a teenage girl, helps a former Marine come to terms with his sexuality, discovers the beauty in life. Bad: Destroys his family.
4. Billy Flynn from Chicago (2002) — Good: Saves an adulteress and murderer from the hangman’s noose in a highly entertaining fashion. Bad: Saves an adulteress and murderer from the hangman’s noose.
3. Dexter Morgan from the Showtime TV series Dexter (2006-present) — I’m cheating here . Since he has yet to be featured in any films, I did bump him down to 3. Otherwise, he would’ve been my #1. Good: Murders serial killers, pedophiles, rapists and other scum of the earth. Bad: Takes pleasure in killing. Lies to his family, friends, and co-workers about his habit … basically, lives a lie. More than once has killed an “innocent” victim, though only inadvertently.
2. Peter Gibbons from Office Space (1999) — Good: Quits his job. Gets promoted. Gets Jennifer Aniston as his girlfriend. Finds a job he likes. Accidentally helps Milton retire to Mexico. Bad: Steals about $300,000 from his work. That’s about it — he even has a crisis of conscience and tries returning the money.
1. Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976) — Could #1 be anyone else? Good: Tries to save a prostitute … a teenage one, to boot! Kills her pimp. Bad: Attempts to assassinate a politician for no good reason, inspiring the real-life assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Asks Cybil Shepherd out on a date, then takes her to see a porno.