History lesson

Alexander Payne shows Hollywood how comedy was done when it was done right

WRITER-DIRECTOR ALEXANDER PAYNE debuted with a satirical comedy about abortion. Not surprisingly, that movie (Citizen Ruth, starring Laura Dern) didn't do well and disappeared quickly, despite favorable press. For his new movie, Election, he chose a subject less volatile, but his humor cuts even more sharply. The petty passions of a high school election may not sound like the setting for a witty, complex dissection of human behavior, but that's what this movie is.

Election

directed by Alexander Payne

starring Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick

opens 5/7 at Metro, Oak Tree, and others

Overachieving student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), running for student-body president, is unopposed until well-respected history teacher Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) convinces a popular athlete named Paul to run against her. Mr. M, as his students call him, does this because Tracy had an affair with Mr. M's best friend, a fellow teacher who was fired when the affair was revealed—leaving Mr. M with a strange mixture of loathing and lust towards Tracy. Meanwhile, Paul's sister Tami, who isn't a lesbian but just happens to have always fallen in love with girls, has just been dumped by a cheerleader who then takes up with Paul and orchestrates his election campaign. So, to get back at both of them, Tami decides to run for student-body president herself. Meanwhile, Mr. M has become strongly attracted to his fired friend's ex-wife . . .

And this only covers the first 20 minutes of the movie.

Although it sounds hopelessly confusing when summarized, the plot unfolds like a silk tapestry. Election flips in and out of flashbacks with such a sprightly, confident pace that there isn't a moment's confusion. And the characters suck you in. Payne has drawn wonderfully subtle and spot-on performances from his entire cast—even Matthew Broderick, who's become a wet noodle of an actor in recent years, gives a low-key but richly funny performance; maybe the high school milieu brings out the best in him. Reese Witherspoon has zoomed ahead of all the pretty but bland actresses she used to resemble. She's slowly turning into some bizarre combination of Carol Burnett and Dame Judi Dench, able to turn from frenzied slapstick to steely-eyed determination on a dime. When Mr. M stares at Tracy in class and remembers her affair with his co-worker, the movie freeze-frames Witherspoon in midconversation, capturing a couple of the most horrifyingly ludicrous expressions every seen on a human face.

But what elevates Election to greatness is its resolute and graceful refusal ever to turn gratuitously grotesque, or to sacrifice realism for the sake of a gag. Everything Tracy, Mr. M, or any of the other characters do is always completely compelling and believable. Payne manages to find rank folly and vicious spite in the most everyday of situations—but just when you're prepared to write a character off as a hopeless loser, the movie takes some little twist that forces you to look at him or her as hopelessly human instead. Election has the same kind of ambition that comedies had in the 1930s and '40s, when being funny meant more than fart jokes and spastic gestures. In a movie like this, nothing is funnier than the truth.

 
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