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Comparative only to Go as the year's most original comedy, Alexander Payne's new film Election supplies enough dry wit and trenchant humor to place it in a category that is far beyond what we would expect from the quintessential "teen comedy." Whereas most teen movies are cast based upon looks (e.g.: I Still Know What You Did Last Summer), Election is one of the few that eyed for talent, something very refreshing for those looking for substance in the recent abundance of low-quality teen films.
Although Reese Witherspoon has a large role as the ambitious and overachieving Tracy Flick, the film is centered on the mundane life of teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick). Everyday he goes through the routine of running around the track, taking a shower, and preparing his lessons. The monotony of his life is cleverly shown in a scene in which he is shown over and over explaining the difference between executive, legislative, and judicial. As he is giving a lecture on morals and ethics, he seems reluctant to call on the anxious Tracy, and almost annoyed at her zeal. It's ironic that morals and ethics would eventually come back to haunt him.
Tracy is asked why she puts up posters even though she is running unopposed for president in the upcoming school election. Coca-Cola is the number one soft drink company in the world without any major competitors," she responds. "But they spend millions of dollars on advertising. I guess that's how come they stay number one." McAllister is unnerved when he finds out that his colleague has had an affair with Tracy. "He's the type of guy who became a teacher because he never wanted to leave high school," McAllister explains. He then becomes even more worried he realizes that Tracy will win the election, and they will have to spend a lot of time together. He tries to inspire Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), the athlete who seems to be more caring than the archetypal popular jock, to run for office. "Maybe it's time to give something back," he tells him. Metzler eventually decides to run, and when he starts to date the love interest of his lesbian sister, she enters the race as well, seemingly just despite him. It is in fact his sister Tammy, who turns out to be the dark horse in the election, after her rousing speech on the meaninglessness of a student body.
By using coarse sexual dialogue, unexpected viewpoints, and freeze-frames at the strangest of moments, Payne is able convey his dark humor with a sense of quirkiness that is both amusing and remarkably engaging. In fact, one extreme close up of a teacher describing a sexual encounter with a student is so surprising and frank, that it nearly garnered the film an NC-17 rating. The success of this type of offbeat high school movie could also be seen in last year's Rushmore.
Reese Witherspoon is able to give the best performance of her young career. Her voice embodies the determination of someone who will stop at nothing in order to assure their success. The walls of her room are laden with posters that are more likely to be seen in a classroom rather than a teenager's. On the night before the election, her candor is seen when she prays, "Dear Jesus, I really must insist that you help me win this election, because I deserve it."
The performances of Broderick and Witherspoon power Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's (who previously collaborated on Payne's first movie Citizen Ruth in 1996) script to play perfectly on the screen. Election's sophistication and attention to the times rivals John Hughes teen classic Sixteen Candles, and looks even better when compared to today's teen movies.
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