by Dean Treadway
Fittingly, Alexander Payne’s 1999 film Election kicks off with a decidedly penile lawn sprinkler shooting its payload over the fields behind George Washington Carver High School. All the trouble that pops up in this cynical, deceptively nasty comedy hails from unbridled male desire (the film is one letter away from being titled Erection). Even though it takes well-deserved potshots at almost any electoral process out there, Election really maps the twists and turns of crippling sexual politics just as much as it serves as an epitaph for the voting process.
Its lead character, Jim McAllister, is played by a frumpy Matthew Broderick whose pasty complexion, ratty haircut, and mismatched polyester ties place him eons away from privileged, ultra-cool Ferris Bueller (director Payne–a former teacher himself–has admitted, quite amazingly, that he’d not seen the John Hughes movie at the time of filming). A civics instructor, McAllister is the three-time winner of Teacher of the Year at the ironically nearly all-white Carver High, and the last person one would suspect of malfeasance, were it not for the foreboding narration that guides us through the opening scenes. Actually, the story sports a jaunty, ’50s-era innocence in these initial moments. We see McAllister demonstrating a heartfelt dedication to teaching, and to his students. And when dowdy-haired student body presidential hopeful Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) shows up with her smiley-faced petition sheets and her bowlful of free Juicy Fruit sticks, the narration may shift to her supercilious voice, chiding all who were involved in the machinations we’re about to see. But an air of chastity is still felt–until it’s stenched up with that wide-lensed close-up of Mark Harelik, whose middle-aged-teen character Dave Navotny smirks as he confides to fellow teacher McAllister a shocking revelation about Tracy. This line of dialogue may be the film’s most memorable because it kicks our butts into the sordid undercurrent that flows throughout this well-observed comedy.
Navotny’s childish braggadocio about Tracy’s moistness takes Election into the trash, really, and trash is a notable visual theme that Payne explores obsessively. There are rubbish receptacles all around. There are people reaching into and standing on trash cans, diving into dumpsters, picking up stray litter, an irritated janitor proves to be a key player, and on and on it goes. It is perpetually garbage day here, and sanitation vehicles are ubiquitous on these grey streets of Omaha (Payne’s hometown and the town where he also filmed his debut feature 1996’s Citizen Ruth and his Election follow-up 2002’s About Schmidt). Payne clearly feels this is a story about rubbish—rubbish ideals, ambitions and desires. And it’s true: as funny as it is, Election does leave you feeling as if a film of stinky garbage scum has coated your skin.
The sad thing is, the film is filled with almost nothing but victims. Witherspoon’s Tracy is an only child being raised by a strict, single, ambition-loving stage mother (Colleen Camp, who was one of the dancing Playboy models in Apocalypse Now and who could have used more screen time). As such, Tracy really never had a chance to become anything more than the churlish taskmaster she is. And because of this, as the idiot Dave Navotny manipulatively point out, she suffers from a smothering loneliness (we rarely see Tracy talking to anyone who’s not an adult, unless she’s scolding or demeaning them). When she’s seduced by Dave, she’s obviously in no right mind, because this developmentally arrested jerk sees her as an attractive loner whom he can trick into bed (by playing “Three Times a Lady,” no less).
McAllister, too, is an innocent. Stuck in a quiet, bland, loveless marriage with a closed-off, baby-mad woman who only wants his sperm for utilitarian purposes, Mr. M is frantically searching for some warmth in his life, but to his credit he never thinks of taking it from a student. He’s mortified when Dave reveals his affair with Tracy, and isn’t sympathetic at all when it leads to his friend’s firing (I love that the last time we see Dave, he’s pricing patio sealant at the paint store Laura Dern frequents in Citizen Ruth) . The problem is, McAllister’s left behind to deal with Tracy, whom he resents for having gotten out of the debacle scot-free, and in whom he comes to see as being possessive of the kind of hypocrisy that’s ruining the government he spends his days teaching about. Later on, of course, as McAllister suffers more and more from a lack of romance in his life, he begins to worry if he harbors some unspoken desire for Tracy (he bristles at her fidgety flirtiness as she hands over her full list of qualifying signatures, which he promptly, of course, heaves into a dumpster). His unease comes to horrifying fruition in a moment where he’s, again, straining to get his wife pregnant and begins to imagine her head replaced by, at first, Dave’s comely ex-wife (Delaney Driscoll) and then by Tracy, who hilariously urges McAllister on to orgasm in her cold, clipped, decidedly unsexy manner.
Election’s story is further complicated by two more innocents. Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) is a Carver High football star who’s introduced as he’s shattering his leg during a skiing wipeout (“WHYYYY???!!”). Barred from playing football ever again, he’s now a kid without an identity, and McAllister preys on this. Incensed that Tracy is running unopposed for president, Mr. M sees in Paul an opportunity to scuttle her plans. In a telling scene, McAllister tries to convince this sweetly reluctant kid to run. Paul says that this is really Tracy Flick’s thing and he doesn’t want to encroach on her territory. But McAllister doesn’t give up:
McAllister: Paul, what’s your favorite fruit?
McAllister: [goes to the chalkboard] Pears, good. OK, let’s say…
Paul: Oh, no wait! Apples.
McAllister: Apples. Fine.
[he starts drawing circles on the chalkboard]
McAllister: Let’s say all you ever knew were apples. Apples, apples, and more apples. You might think apples were pretty good, even if you got a rotten one every once in a while. But then one day…
[he draws another circle which looks the same as the others]
McAllister: …there’s an orange. And now you can make a decision, do you want an apple or do you want an orange? That’s democracy.
Paul: I also like bananas.
Here, Payne introduces two more visual motifs: circles (McAllister is always seen dashing around in circles, even during the movie’s opening credits) and apples (the forbidden fruit, on which Mr. M munches more than once). Meanwhile, after being cajoled into running against Tracy, Paul heads to his opulent home where, in the kitchen, he naturally goes for a banana. That’s Paul for ya: a big banana (this is another of the film’s many penis jokes–Paul later reveals in a bedtime prayer that his is said to be large). But you have to give it to him–he’s extremely lovable, if a complete dunce. Paul never has an underhanded moment in the movie; he’s always fair…too fair, in fact (his eventual actions in the voting booth prove this). And his sweetness absolutely excludes recognizing anyone else’s mercenary actions, and that includes those of his adopted sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), who is the orange in this trio of fruits.
Tammy’s honesty and quick anger might make her seem the harshest of these characters, but her only goal in this story is to find true love, or at least a teenager’s idea of what that might be. Spurned by a thorny girlfriend who retreats from the relationship for fear of being labeled a “dyke,” Tammy later wanders the bleak Omaha landscapes confused and waxing poetic. “Sometimes when I’m sad,” she says, “I sit and watch the power station. They say if you lie between two of the main wires, your body just evaporates and you become a gas. I wonder what that would feel like.” Tammy has no time for her brother, presumably because she’s bored by him and thinks him corny, and she certainly has no love for school politics (she pines to attend a nearby all-girl school, Immaculate Heart). But when her former girlfriend ends up as Paul’s sex toy, the battle lines are drawn and Tammy throws her hat into the election ring as an act of pure revenge (“I don’t even know these people,” Tracy screeches as she examines Tammy’s petition signatures. “They’re a bunch of burn-outs.”)
The centerpiece of the film, in my view, is the spectacular school assembly scene where all of Payne’s filmmaking faculties are on view. An impatient student body has been called together to hear the campaign speeches of each of the candidates. There’s a kid in a wheelchair who’s running unopposed for Vice-President–he has the most memorable campaign line: “Even if I can’t stand up for you, I will.” And then we hear, from Tracy, a pretentious speech complete with Thoreau quotes, awkward student testimonials, and an overemphasized cliche about “a vote for me is a vote for yourselves.” (It’s wonderful how Payne has Witherspoon deliver the word “yourselves” in a loud, mean tone that veers into distortion on the soundtrack). Tracy gets polite applause–that is, after being mocked mid-speech by a kid entreating “Eat me, eat me raw.” And then Paul hits the microphone, to thunderous accolades. But this political novice lets his naivete show big time: he reads his speech in a speedy monotone, never once looking up at his audience, and while his sentiments are non-offensive, his style is nil (Payne has Klein pull away from the mike at his speech’s end, causing his words to trail off to nothingness, and leaving crickets to literally be heard in the auditorium). Finally, Tammy takes the stage to hoots and jeers. But these subside pretty quickly as she launches into a searing tirade that’s shot straightforwardly, sans editing, by Payne and his accomplished cinematographer James Glennon:
Tammy Metzler: Who cares about this stupid election? We all know it doesn’t matter who gets elected president of Carver. Do you really think it’s going to change anything around here? Make one single person smarter or happier or nicer? The only person it does matter to is the one who gets elected. The same pathetic charade happens every year, and everyone makes the same pathetic promises just so they can put it on their transcripts to get into college. So vote for me, because I don’t even want to go to college, and I don’t care, and as president I won’t do anything. The only promise I will make is that if elected I will immediately dismantle the student government, so that none of us will ever have to sit through one of these stupid assemblies again!
The top-of-the-lung cheers at this upchuck in democracy’s face visibly startles the school principal (a terrifically authoritarian Phil Reeves). McAllister looks shaken, as if the place is going to explode with apathy as the cheers of “TAMMY! TAMMY!” ring out. Tammy grabs the mike like a rock star and adds a coda: “Or don’t vote for me! Who cares? Don’t vote at all!!” As a standing ovation jolts the auditorium, the message is clear: no vote is the most popular vote of all. Sound familiar? The scene sizzles our brains with a despairing recognition.
Though the principal’s initial response is to throw that “little bitch” out of the election, McCallister sticks up for her; he’d be happy to have her win instead of Tracy, which doesn’t say much for his motivations. Instead, he recommends suspension, which Tammy sees as a reward. And it’s here that the film’s focus turns back to McAllister’s questionable morals–or are they ethics? (What’s the difference, this film asks, but never really answers.) Fed up with his chilly, demanding wife, McAllister’s eye starts to roam and lands on Dave’s ex-wife Linda, whose tits and ass are beginning to make him sweat. She starts calling on him to open wine bottles, drill holes, mow lawns and fix her plumbing—-all of which are humorously sexual household tasks. So it’s no surprise that this man takes all this as a come-on, which it is. But that doesn’t mean he’s not going to pay for it. It’s this misstep, really, that causes McAllister’s world to come crashing down around him, to the point where the only solace, the only sense of control his bee-stung eyes can find, is located in the outcome of this stupid election.
McAllister’s actions are understandable. Tracy IS a monster—a busy-body know-it-all whose overachievement hides a barren soul devoid of empathy or charity. But neither of the other candidates are really there for the right reasons. And Tracy might be correct in speculating that McAllister is jealous of the kids he’s teaching, whom he gives opportunities to escape Omaha and move on to the sort of bright future he isn’t brave enough to grab for himself. When opportunity finally comes for him, he takes it only because his stray erections have left him no other choice.
There are so many things I love about Election. Reese Witherspoon’s performance seems requisitely brave and, really, unlike anything she’s done elsewhere in her career. She’s shrill and unlikable, and the film really makes you want to see her get a good ass-whooping (especially when she blames Tammy for some wrong-doing we all know Tracy was responsible for). But there’s a subtext to her Tracy Flick that makes you instantly sympathetic when she’s crying her eyes out after being rooked by McAllister’s actions (her mother offers her a pill to help her calm down, which is also a telling detail). The details in Witherspoon’s tremendous performance makes you realize that, even though Tracy’s neither charming nor honest, she may be the perfect person for the job she’s seeking.
Chris Klein, in his debut role, is a marvelously goofy presence, and it’s astonishingly lucky that Payne discovered a free sense of jock-flavored dorkiness in him. Campbell, with her braces and what-the-fuck stance, is slightly less accomplished, but is nevertheless a stark and welcome voice of frankness. And Broderick finally graduates into his career’s middle age, and has since been playing schlubby, unhappy bureaucrats simply because he was so damn great at it in Election. He has many brilliant moments—holding that champagne bottle up to his puffed-up eye; crouching down in a bathtub while scrubbing his genitals in preparation for a date with Linda; reacting with a blinkered shock at Tracy’s threatening request to have an attorney present; riding around slumped in that dirty old Ford Festiva, which is the perfect small car for a small man. There are really a hundred reasons to see Election more than once, but Broderick’s performance comes near the top of the list.
At the top, though, are Payne’s direction and the script he co-wrote with writing partner Jim Taylor (the Oscar-nominated screenplay was adapted from a book by Tom Perotta, in which Tracy was decidedly more sexual, a detail that the writing duo wisely decided to drop for the movie). Chief among Payne’s concerns are effective pacing and believability, I think, and he achieves these goals using all the tools at his disposal. For instance, he casts non-actors whenever he can, and doing so adds an undeniable verisimilitude to the ensemble. He refuses to over art-direct things, resulting in suitably prison-like high school rooms and drab middle-class homes. He’s always into goosing up the visuals with magnificently well-chosen freeze frames (that first one of Tracy, which catches her in an awkward and ugly mid-sentence moment, is a scream), wipes, split-screen, graphics, handheld 16mm footage, weird rear-projections, delightfully out-of-place stock footage, and ghostly overlays (I love the one he does with Tracy’s gigantic, expressive mouth whispering into Mr. M’s worried ear: “When I win the presidency, you and I are going to be spending lots of time together…lots and lots of time. President and advisor. Harmonious and productive. Close and special. You and I”). He has Rolfe Kent deliver a smart and diverse backing score, but also wisely uses needle drops from Donovan, Joey Altruda, Mandy Barnett, Patience and Prudence, and Ennio Morricone (whose shrieking music from Navajo Joe effectively punctuates Tracy’s most violent emotions). And the director never forgets that the writing should remain in constant focus. 1999 was a landmark year in movies, but with Election, scriptwriters Payne and Taylor reminded us that ideas, story, character and dialogue are still king, even as shiny-clean visual treats like Pixar’s talking toys and The Matrix’s copious bullets were flying about all around us.
How Election made the Top 100:
No. 27 Samuel Wilson
No. 48 Ed Howard
No. 57 Maurizio Roca