Election - B
Viewed April 24, 1999 at Lincoln Square

Alexander Payne's follow-up to the wickedly funny Citizen Ruth has to count as a mild disappointment, especially when its first 30 minutes are about as brilliant a stretch of filmmaking as you're likely to see all year. With a barrage of voiceover narration, freeze-frame, and similar cinematic tricks, it establishes the character of each of the four protagonists and their motivations for the election perfectly : dedicated but schmucky civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), perky and wildly overachieving Tracy Flick (an excellent Reese Witherspoon[1]), sweet but dim Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) and his closeted lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), whose surface cynicism is a mask for a hopelessly romantic nature. It's a jaw dropping display of cinematic virtuosity, and further proof of an emerging aesthetic in comic filmmaking that's the most promising development in American cinema since the artistic heyday of "independent" film in the early 90's before it got co-opted by Hollywood studios.[2]

The setup is brilliant, but Election never develops a roundhouse knockout punch, instead going for a series of underwhelming feints and jabs. There are inspired moments of brilliance (Paul's hilariously monotonal campaign speech, and the scene where the Metzlers threaten to straighten out Tammy by sending her to an all-girl Catholic school!), but the film spends far too much time in its last half on a trite adultery plot.[3] At the same time Payne curiously underplays the film's real joke -- it doesn't matter if Tracy or Paul wins. The school itself proves Tammy's point about how pointless student government is.

[1]Given her best work is in this and Matthew Bright's Sam Fuller on crack Freeway, Witherspoon's talent clearly lies in larger-than-life, highly mannered caricature. If the Coens decide they ever need a twentysomething female lead, I suggest they call her number first -- she'd be a perfect actress for them.

[2]1998-1999's clearest cinematic development is the emergence of a new American comedy aesthetic that has as its hallmarks the use of flat, mundane lighting; character-driven humor; extremely aggressive and baldly cinematic editing and mise-en-scene; and a complex, multi-layered use of music that manages to be simultaneously ironic and celebratory. This aesthetic is evident in no less than four releases of the past six months -- Happiness, Rushmore, Office Space, and now Election. While the tones of the four films couldn't be more different[4], the means are often quite similar. Compare the yearbook sequence in Election to the extracurricular montage early in Rushmore. Or the use of rap songs in Office Space to the Air Supply moment in Happiness. It's a refreshing alternative to the no-holds-barred vulgarity (South Park, There's Something about Mary) that forms the other emerging current in American comic filmmaking.[5][6]

[3]As Mike D'Angelo suggested, it's a lot more interesting if Jim McAllister rigs the election simply because he thinks Tracy's an obnoxious brat and not because he also happens to be at the end of his emotional rope.

[4] Ranging as it does from Solondz's passive-aggressive sympathy/misanthropy to Judge's genially sardonic air; from the humane but savage satire of Payne to the cockeyed optimism of Anderson.

[5] Happiness, admittedly, has its foot dipped into both streams.

[6]This is why I've adopted my footnote-laden review structure. To indulge long-winded asides like this.