Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, from the novel by Tom Perrotta
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein
NY Distribution Status: opens 23 April 1999 (Paramount)

Grade: B

Is the fabled "sophomore slump" in effect when a filmmaker follows a brilliant movie with one that's merely pretty darn good? I mean, are we critics supposed to be quite that churlish? As grungily stylish and abrasively funny as Citizen Ruth -- one of the best films of the decade, even if you've never heard of it -- Election, if nothing else, confirms Payne as a first-class director; while not quite as aggressively visual as Rushmore (to which it bears a few superficial similarities), it's still one of the few Hollywood comedies in recent memory that doesn't look like a glorified sitcom. (Nobody's made such superlative use of the freeze-frame as punctuation mark since GoodFellas...and no, I didn't forget about Out of Sight.) The cast, too, is uniformly terrific; Broderick may have been miscast physiognomy-wise -- even at 37, he looks like he ought to be standing in line for the pencil sharpener -- but his air of low-key, well-meaning condescension is note-perfect, and his young co-stars -- novices all, apart from Witherspoon -- are equally able. They're let down a bit, unfortunately, by a screenplay that relies heavily on voiceover narration of the we-adapted-this-from-a-novel-and-we-can't-bear-to-lose-said-novel's-wonderful-interior-monologues variety. To be fair, a lot of the narration does work -- especially at the outset, when the four main characters (Broderick's Jim McAllister plus the three students running for student council president) seem to divide the narrative pie into roughly equal slices; about midway through the second act, though, Payne and co-scribe Jim Taylor kind of lose sight of the kids, except as handy plot devices, and the film suddenly becomes the not-terribly-interesting story of a teacher's mid-life crisis, complete with a lackluster subplot involving a disastrous extramarital affair. Worse, this affair, about which I cared not one whit, becomes the catalyst for McAllister's climactic act of sabotage; the juxtaposition of his personal and professional lives may have worked in the book (which I haven't read, but which I suspect is less broadly satirical than the movie -- there's a disparity between the tone and certain plot elements that suggests fidelity to the latter but not the former), but it's not half as funny, nor as potentially cinematic, as the notion of a vaguely dissatisfied adult who's determined, mostly out of pique, to derail the extracurricular locomotive being driven by an obnoxiously ambitious teen. A bit of a disappointment, then, but only by comparison; if it is a case of sophomore slump, it's the least pernicious on record.