ElectionAn Alexander Payne film never makes for straight viewing and, like “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” which won him more mainstream praise in the new millennium, his 1999 followup to “Citizen Ruth” is an extremely clever “twisted” movie. A satire on high-school politics and thus a metaphor for more general politics as well as a crooked take on the American Dream if you will, it was perhaps inevitable that “Election” would not do very well at the box office. Even though critical reception was largely positive, its darkly humorous premise and execution is perhaps just too real and uncomfortable for average Joe citizen. Adapted from the novel of the same title by Tom Perrotta, it was inspired by the events of the 1992 US Presidential election campaign. History has already repeated itself since with the dastardly Bush vs Gore elections in 2000 and more recently again with the rise of a certain Sarah Palin, the similarities with the film are quite simply shocking.

The film takes place at Carver High in Omaha in the run-up to the school’s student body elections. Running unopposed for president is the hard working, eager, self-centred and over-ambitious yet very electable Tracy Flick played by Reese Witherspoon in her best role until “Walk the Line.” Seemingly the only one who recognises how she steps on other people to achieve her goals is dedicated history teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) who, in frustration at how she destroyed working colleague David’s job through an affair, becomes determined to stop Tracy. Thus he sets up likeable jock Paul (Chris Klein) to run in opposition, a situation complicated by Paul’s sister who runs on an “I don’t care track” in order to get expelled so she can attend an all-girls catholic school. Tempers flare especially in Tracy’s camp as winning this election means everything to her. In parallel, Jim’s job and livelihood are put dangerously at risk as he becomes increasingly attracted to his friend’s ex-wife. Cynics might expect it all to go pear shaped but certainly you shouldn’t expect a neat little conclusion, Payne simply doesn’t make that kind of film. Instead, the story’s satirical aspects are brought across with a very generous dose of humour, some of it subtle, some less so.

The cliches of elections and their candidates are blatantly obvious: From the girl fighting for those good old basic American values while at the same time being corrupt to the root, via the good but a little dumb sports hero with the likability factor to the alternative, slightly strange opposition candidate, there are no great pains (excuse the pun) to hide these facts. Not that this is a bad thing, quite on the contrary, the similarities to political counterparts makes it all the funnier. At the same time, many of the minor characters serve similar roles that are much more likely to go unnoticed: The school principal for example who, in theory, should be the independent observer, becomes a sort of big-brother figure, the suit with the real power to eliminate a candidate from the race. It’s little details like this as well as clever product placement for fruit and Pepsi (there’s a good reason, believe me!)  or complicated flashbacks within flashbacks that really lend “Election” a kind of curious charm that few films today possess. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t really encourage the viewer to root for a particular side in the conflict. Even though we might ultimately sympathise with Broderick’s teacher, he too isn’t innocent in the least. Payne was nominated with his screenwriting partner Jim Taylor for a screenplay Oscar, an award the pair won five years later for “Sideways.” In that way it’s a real shame that post-Sideways Payne has disappeared off the radar a bit because he truly is one of the most talented writer-directors in the great comedy genre that Hollywood has to offer.

Election OSTWhile the film and ultimately the soundtrack album was littered with songs from the likes of The Commodores and Tim Carroll, the film’s original score was composed by Payne regular Rolfe Kent. The Brit is perfect for writing music for quirky films just like these. And while the director/composer pairing would only come to full fruition on “About Schmidt” the score for “Election” is nevertheless an interesting aspect of the film. In fleshing out the musical of identity of Tracy Flick in particular, the composer identifies her emotions of, say anger with the most crude and basic methods. A sort of repeating war-cry may seem completely out of place but it completely fits with Tracy’s naive and child-like tantrums and emotions. Sadly the score was completely ignored on album but can be found on an extremely rare promo. The song compilation itself is listenable but nothing to write home about.

“Election” is that rare kind of film that pulls all the right comedic as well as satirical strings and balances each perfectly. For this and the screenplay alone it is highly recommendable. Add in to the mix outstanding performances all around from Broderick and Witherspoon in particular, you’ve got a real dark horse winner. If you’re not too conservative in your political outlook, then you most certainly will enjoy this.

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