Sunday, May 10, 2020

Pick Flick

Film: Election
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

Of all the movies on my Oscars list, there is none that I have been as close to watching and reviewing without actually pulling the trigger than Election. I checked it out of the library on the last day before Illinois libraries locked down completely, and it’s taken me close to two months to get to it even now. This might be the 10th time I’ve checked it out of the library, too, and before now I’ve always returned it unwatched. It literally took COVID-19 to get me to watch it, and even then it took me about 7-8 weeks. And I watched I yesterday and it took me until now to actually review it.

Do I know why? Not really. There was something about it that frustrated me. I think a large part of it was the fact that I knew a little about it. I knew that the Matthew Broderick character had a lot that happened to him in the second and third act, and I hate comedies that rely on embarrassment for the humor. It seemed like that kind of film. I knew it was a movie that featured Reese Witherspoon, and I’m not a huge fan. I knew it was a movie that featured Chris Klein, and I’m even less of a fan. But hey, I did actually watch it finally.

So, briefly, Election is the story of a very strange student council election at a high school in Nebraska. Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) is one of those students who is hyper-involved in everything, the type who needs to be in charge all the time and who needs to be right about everything as well. If you ever took an AP class or whatever they were called in your high school, you almost certainly had a couple of these people in the class with you. Tracy, as we start the film, has decided to run for student council president, and is running unopposed.

This strikes history/civics teacher Jim McAllister (Broderick) as problematic. He’s not a fan of Tracy. He doesn’t like her go-getter smugness, her ability to answer questions asked in class correctly without seeming to really understand them. Most of all, he dislikes her because she had an affair with his fellow teacher and friend Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), who was forced to leave the school in shame. Because it was hushed up, Tracy escaped this escapade with her spotless reputation undamaged, but McAllister knew all about it due to his friendship with the Novotnys and the subsequent break-up of their marriage.

Determined to at least make things difficult for Tracy, McAllister convinces former football star Paul Metzler (Klein) to run. Metzler, having shattered his leg skiing and told he could not play football and may never play again, finds that running for student council president has suddenly given his life meaning. His younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), dealing with her own iconoclast nature and given a little to nihilism, decides to get in on the election and decides to run as well, mainly to throw a wrench in the works for everyone, including the school.

I won’t go into the details here. If you’ve seen the movie, you know how the day before the election, the election itself, and the day after go. If you haven’t I’m not going to be the one who spoils this for you, despite the fact that this movie is more than a couple of decades old. I’ll only say that my fear that this was an embarrassment-based comedy is mostly not the case. There’s a little of that, but it doesn’t focus on it or get too uncomfortable.

So here’s the truth. I don’t like most of these characters. I particularly don’t like Tracy Flick, but I’m also not supposed to like Tracy Flick. This might be Witherspoon’s best performance, and while I dislike the character intensely, it is one of the first times I’ve liked her in a role. It’s also some of Chris Klein’s best work, not that that says much of anything. There are a few places where he’s a little too earnest and a little too na├»ve to be believed, but that’s the character.

It will ruffle a few feathers when I say that this is Broderick’s film, though. I don’t really like Jim McAllister, either, but Broderick is brilliant in this. It’s a reminder that Matthew Broderick is a much more versatile actor than we tend to give him credit for being. McAllister is unlike the sort of role Broderick is normally associated with, and yet he is completely real and his motivations are completely believable.

Bluntly, though, Tammy Metzler is the only character I genuinely like.

The genius of the movie is that it gives us the perspective of all of these characters at various points. We see exactly what they are thinking, often about the same things going on around them. We get to know these characters on a slightly deeper level, because each of them gets some time doing narration on what is happening around them. It’s smart, because even if we don’t like the characters in question, we at least understand them more.

Ultimately, I liked this. I may never check it out of the library again, but it was worth seeing.

Why to watch Election: It's far more clever than it deserves to be.
Why not to watch: It reminds me of just how much I dislike people as a general rule.


  1. And I was there to witness the birth pangs of this post. Excellent.

    1. Wanted it officially on Sunday, but needed a couple of minutes to finish up.

  2. I do love this film. I think it's Alexander Payne's best film because it is so funny. Yes, Tracy and McCalister are total douchebags while I did like Chris Klein's character. I related more towards Tammy as I was one of those kids who hated high school and hated going to stupid pep rallies, student assemblies, and all sorts of shit.

    1. I've liked a lot of Payne's movies. I appreciate the fact that he evidently waits for a project he really wants to do, directing one every couple of years rather than a couple every year.

      I wasn't a high school fan, either.

  3. Now you should just get Mudbound over with, as it's the only film on your Oscar lists after the 80s and before this past Oscar year that you haven't watched.

  4. I saw this when it first came out and I've long considered it one of the best political thrillers ever made.

    1. If I think of political thrillers, my first thought tends to be All the President's Men.

      I'd love to say Wag the Dog, but it's not much of a thriller.

  5. I walked into this in the theatre not knowing what to really expect. I went more for who was in it, I'd always liked Matthew Broderick and Reese was making a big noise with Pleasantville and Cruel Intentions leading up to this, so I was glad when it turned out to be a cutting satire with sharp observations as well as solid performances.

    Most of the characters are rather deplorable but they are also recognizable, some to a disturbing degree, and since those type of people have always existed and always will exist unfortunately it adds a timelessness to the film.

    Everybody is exceptionally good, including as you said Klein who is a real sweetheart in this which in itself is a feat since from everything I've ever read he's a complete tool in real life, but for me the most memorable is Reese Witherspoon. Tracy Flick is a horror show of a person without one redeeming quality and Reese never tries to cheat the character and make the audience like her or indicate "hey this isn't really me, I'm just acting" which strengthens her work.

    I don't ever return to it but I was glad to have seen it.

    1. That's a good point about Witherspoon. It might be tempting to try to redeem the character, but she never goes there. That's the right choice--Tracy is supposed to be a terrible person, and we want her to be a terrible person through to the end. Redeeming her would be unearned and feel like a cheat.