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The Venom Thing

[whitespace] Election
Joe Lederer

Missing Class: Teacher Matthew Broderick wants to crush the ambitions of perky student Reese Witherspoon in Alexander Payne's cruel comedy, 'Election.'

A teacher and a student compete in the cynical 'Election'

By Michelle Goldberg

DIRECTOR ALEXANDER PAYNE appears to loathe all of the characters in his new movie, Election, and his scorn gives even the film's biggest laughs a sour aftertaste. Like Todd Solondz, Payne is something of a master at cataloguing suburban banality. He was lauded for his last film, Citizen Ruth, an abortion comedy that ruthlessly satirizes both sides of that debate. In that movie, though, he at least sympathizes with Ruth, his pregnant, glue-huffing anti-heroine, and with a kindly Vietnam vet turned clinic defender. Here, unfortunately, there's far less respite from his sneer.

Based on Tom Perrotta's novel of the same name, Election is the story of a supposedly good-natured teacher, Jim McAllister, and his absurd battle with a perpetually perky, overachieving high school senior, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). (The casting of Matthew Broderick of Ferris Bueller fame as the ill-fated instructor is probably the movie's best gag.) The action centers around a student council election--Tracy is determined to win, and McAllister is desperate to see her lose. At first, it seems that the teacher simply has a healthy underdog's scorn for the young perfectionist, but we soon learn that his animosity springs from a darker source. Tracy was seduced by McAllister's best friend, who lost both his job and his wife as a result of the affair. Why McAllister should blame Tracy for this debacle is unclear, expect for the fact that underneath his surface idealism and cheer, he's a bitter misogynist. Determined to thwart Tracy's election, he recruits an amiable, dimwitted football star to challenge her. What ensues elicits a few mean-spirited laughs and a far greater number of cringes.

Payne's comedy is always entwined with contempt, and the jokes often curdle. One only has to look at the far more hilarious Rushmore, also about the competition between a sad-sack adult and a poised, wildly energetic teenager, to see that even very dark humor needn't depend on such cynicism. That film glows with director Anderson's affection; Election, in contrast, exhibits a rancid kind of pall. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Election is the way it squanders the once-wonderful Witherspoon. With a strangely clipped Midwestern accent, Witherspoon is a caricature of a teacher's pet--her character's genesis seems like someone's attempt at revenge on all the girls who were smarter than he was in high school. Witherspoon was once sultry and insouciant, but movies like Cruel Intentions and Pleasantville have typecast her as some kind of latter-day Sandra Dee. One can only hope that in her next film she teams up with a director who doesn't mistake his own venom for vision.


Election (R; 103 min.), directed by Alexander Payne, written by Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Tom Perrota, photographed by Casey Hotchkiss and starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the May 6-12, 1999 issue of Metro.

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