Februrary 6, 2013

Election (1999)
Starring Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, and Chris Klein

Comments:    Back in my review of The Quick and the Dead, I mentioned that Sam Raimi is probably my all time favorite movie director.  He is one of those rare people out there, along with maybe James Cameron, where if they make a movie I am going to see it.  No questions asked.  I just trust them because I know that anything they make (based on their track record) is going to be good.  And there aren't too many directors out there who I would give that kind of carte blanche.  Heck, I wouldn't even give that kind of an honor to Quentin Tarantino.  I like most of Tarantino's stuff, but I don't like all of his stuff.

And up until I started writing this review, I thought that Sam Raimi and James Cameron were the only two names that I would put on my list of must see movie directors.

Ah, but then I remembered Alexander Payne.

Do you know who Alexander Payne is?  No, chances are that you probably don't.  I mean, obviously SOME people know him.  He has a lot of really big fans in the industry in some really big and important places.  He is one of those guys who has been kicking around and making movies and pulling off hits left and right for years.  But in terms of audience recognition, no.  He isn't the type of director who has his name mentioned before the title of a movie.  Most people, unless they are paying attention, have really never even heard of him.

If you know Alexander Payne at all, you will probably know him from his two most recent hit movies, Sideways and The Descendants.  Both of those won huge critical praise when they originally came out, and both of them found a pretty good audience.  And in both cases, of course you know how they were marketed.  Both of were lauded as "Alexander Payne's big breakout mainstream hit!"

But here is the thing.  Alexander Payne made a bunch of good movies before he ever made Sideways.  In fact I will flat out tell you that Sideways and The Descendants are my two least favorite Alexander Payne movies.  They are both still really good, of course, Alexander Payne is incapable of making a bad movie.  But his two mainstream hits are nowhere near as dark and cynical and as awesome as his first three movies were.

Election came out in 1999 and it was Alexander Payne's second movie.  I'm not going to mention what his first movie was, because that one is obscure as hell and it is easily one of the bigger undiscovered gems on this entire countdown.  Oh and also, because I am writing about that particular movie tomorrow.  But Election came out in 1999 and it was the first movie where a lot of people really kind of took notice of how talented and how quirky this guy Alexander Payne really was.

Election was never a huge hit.  And it was certainly never nominated for Best Picture or anything.  But I do remember it was quite the little sleeper when it originally came out.  It was one of those randomly awesome quirky little movies that came out in the summer of 1999, which I will tell you over and over and over was my favorite year for movies ever.  Seriously, pick any random movie from 1999.  Just grab something random from Netflix.  Chances are that if it came out that year, it is going to be awesome.

And Election was in the top 5% even for that year

Election is the story of a high school teacher in Nebraska named Jim McAllister.  He is played by Matthew Broderick and, well, he is kind of like the most awesome teacher you ever had when you were in high school.  You know the type.  The kids love him.  He shows up at all the events.  He runs the clubs, he keeps people laughing in class.  He encourages the kids to refer to him as "Mr. M."  Heck, he even dresses up as the school mascot during the pep rallies.

If there ever was a teacher who was more beloved than Mr. McAllister, it would be hard to find him.

Mr. M receiving his Teacher of the Year award

But here is the thing.  Mr. McAllister might be perfect on the outside, and all the kids might love him, but he has a very dark secret that he is hiding.  In fact this whole movie is full of deep nasty carefully hidden dark secrets that people are hiding.  It is what makes Election so special.

The kids all love Mr. M, and of course Mr. M loves all of the kids.

Well, except for one of them.

There is one student at Carver High School that he just absolutely cannot stand.

That's right.  It is little miss go-dooder type A extrovert herself, Miss Tracy Flick.

Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is the absolute embodiment of everything that he hates.  He looks at her every day in class.  He sees her raising her hand and being a show off.  He sees her being selfish and self-absorbed, and getting straight A's, and treating all the other students like they are her underlings, and all he feels is rage.  All he sees every day in his class is this creature from the nether regions that must be destroyed.

Oh, and did I mention that Mr. M's best friend got fired for making inappropriate advances on Tracy a year ago?

Yeah that is also a factor.  

Mr. M hates everything that Tracey stands for in the world.  He hates her ambition.  He hates her assertiveness.  He hates her demeanor.  He hates her success.  He hates her self-absorbedness.  He basically just hates everything about her.

And when he sees a chance to stomp on her dreams, and crush this little 17 year old Little Miss Perfect to the ground, he decides he is going to take it.

Oh this little bitch is going down

Mr. McAllister is the chair of the school election committee.  And when he sees that Tracy is running for student body president, and that nobody is opposing her, he decides to do something about it.  After all, he reasons, what good is an election if there is only one candidate?  Do we really want to live in a country where the people don't get to choose between two qualified nominees?

Mr. M explaining to his government class how freedom of choice works

Mr. M goes to the most popular boy in school (Paul Metzler), who also happens to be the star of the football team, and he encourages him to run against Tracy for class president.  After all, he tells Paul, it would be good for the school.  Don't you want to do things that are good for the school?  Don't you want to show your spirit for how much you love Carver High?

Paul, naturally, is not all that bright.  

And he is quickly convinced that this is a really good idea.

Paul Metzler, potential class president/blowjob enthusiast

And this sets the stage for one of the darkest, and nastiest, and most cynical pieces of filmmaking I have ever seen in my life.  I mean, good lord.  You want to talk about a cynical storyteller, check out some early Alexander Payne films.  Because once Election takes off and starts going down that dark road of destruction, it just doesn't stop.  It never lets up.  None of the characters is safe.  This is one of those movies that is so darkly funny, and is so dang uncomfortable, that you spend half the movie laughing before you realize it really isn't even a comedy.  

In fact, that is an excellent description for a movie like this.  Election.  A nasty little satire that will make you laugh the entire time, but is really a drama.  And then you will kind of feel bad afterwards for how much you laughed at it.  Nobody makes movies like that better than Alexander Payne does.

Tracy:  "I want to be your class president."
Random Student #1 Off Camera:  "Eat me!"
Random Student #2 Off Camera:  "Eat me raw!"

I remember seeing Election in 1999 and I was like "woah."  I had never seen anything like it before.  It was one of those movies that I loved, but I couldn't quite put my finger on -why- I loved it.  I knew that it was cynical.  And I love cynical movies.  I knew that it was funny.  And obviously I love funny movies.  I knew that it was intelligent and it had a good cast.  But I just couldn't put my finger on exactly why I liked it so much.  It is a really really hard movie (and it still is) to try to describe to someone.

You think that Election is a teen movie.  Well it's not.  

You think that it is a parody of American politics.  Well it kinda is, but it is a lot more than that too.

You think that it is a comedy.  Well calling an Alexander Payne movie a comedy is like calling Abraham Lincoln "a guy who had a hat."  Yeah okay, technically that is true, but it is only a part of the overall picture.  Alexander Payne movies are generally way deeper than just calling them a comedy.

Also, at one point a bee stings Matthew Broderick in the eye

It took me a while, but in the end, I was finally able to put my finger on why I liked Election so much.  I liked it because it was good.  I mean, this is a movie that (like all Alexander Payne movies) has always been nearly impossible to classify.  It is not that quotable.  It is more drama than comedy.  It is depressing as hell.  And none of the characters (except for maybe Paul) are even remotely likable.  Yet it works.  And the reason it works is because the director is freaking amazing at what he does.  And that was what finally sold me on Alexander Payne movies.  This movie really doesn't have all that many great things going for it.  The story wouldn't work in the hands of 98% of the moviemakers out there.  But Alexander Payne can spin straw into gold and he does it beautifully here.  I can't think of a single other filmmaker who could have pulled off this movie.  It is an Alexander Payne slice of life midwest cynicism masterpiece through and through.

Oh, and like most (all) Alexander Payne masterpieces, the music and the editing are really quirky and add a lot to the experience.

Like the random appearance of the God Cam

And the usage of the freeze frame

Before I sign off and send you on your merry little way to go watch Election again (or, if you are lucky, for the first time) I should say something about the actors.  

Now obviously I consider this to be an Alexander Payne movie more than anything else.  Like I said before, I can't imagine anyone but him being able to pull off this movie.

But I have to give special props to Matthew Broderick as Mr. McAllister.  I mean, Matthew Broderick is a guy who 15 years earlier had been Ferris Bueller.  For a decade and a half he was known as the teenager who was the biggest scourge to teachers on the face of the earth.  And then 15 years later, of course he turns the tables and becomes the teacher who is the scourge to one student.  I always loved that little quirk about this film.  Election is the movie where Ferris Bueller becomes a teacher and he decides to take his revenge.

Oh yeah, and Mr. M is also an incredible dick when you get to know him.  So the movie's got that going for it too.  Which is nice.


Of course Reese Witherspoon is the actor who most people talk about when they talk about Election.  And for good reason too.  Her role as Tracy Flick was the role of a lifetime.  I can't imagine anyone being able to pull off that character quite like she did.  

In fact, here is a little trivia note for you.  Reese Witherspoon's performance as Tracy Flick was ranked #45 on the list of the 100 Greatest Film Performances of All Time by Premiere Magazine.

She is the star of the movie and she owns every second she is on screen.

Even if, you know, she is annoying and you still kind of want to see Tracy get punched in the face.

Tracy Flick is better than you

However, before I sign off, I have to give a special mention to Chris Klein.  The often forgotten Chris Klein.  Who when I first saw this movie, I immediately thought was adorable.

Chris Klein's performance as Paul Metzler is one of my favorite performances by any actor in any teen movie ever.  He is just so stupid and so endearing.  He really doesn't have a dishonest bone in his body.  He wouldn't even know how to be mean to somebody if he tried.  Yet he gets thrown into this Machiavellian power struggle between Mr. M and Tracey.  And he is so dumb that he doesn't have any idea what kind of forces he is up against.  In my opinion he has always been the lynchpin that sort of holds this movie together.

He is also the only really likable character in the movie, and you do kind of need that.

Paul Metzler praying for luck in his election bid.  And also thanking God for his large penis.

By the way, rumor has it that Chris Klein never even intended to be an actor.  He was just some football player at Papillion-LaVista High School in Omaha (where they filmed the movie.)  And when Alexander Payne came out to Omaha do some advance location scouting, the two of them ran into each other and Payne realized that this kid would be a perfect Paul Metzler.  So Payne gave him a role in the movie, Election became a hit, and then because of Election Chris Klein got a role in American Pie.  And then for a couple of years he kind of kicked around Hollywood as a younger version of Keanu Reeves.

Well I know that there aren't many Chris Klein fans out there in the world, but I will buck the trend and say that I have always been one.  I have always been a fan of his because of Election.  He is so perfect for this role, and he is so sweet and dumb and honest and endearing, that you can't help but feel bad for him.  It is a shame that more people don't remember how good he was in it (and, in particular, how this was his first acting job ever!)

The scene where Mr. M tries to get Paul to pick between apples and oranges, and Paul wants to choose pears or bananas, is a personal favorite.

So there you go.  Election.  A great movie with fun actors, quirky editing, and a genius of a director.

I am not 100% sure that you can really call this an underloved movie, because it still has a TON of fans out there.  But then again it is also less well known now than it was a decade ago, so who knows.  I just wanted to write about it because I love to rave about Alexander Payne, and because I want people to remember Chris Klein.  Oh, and because it is a perfect set up for the movie I am going to write about tomorrow.  And you will never believe it, but that movie is even more cynical and even more dark than Election is.

That is not very easy to do.


P.S.  This movie has a very hard R rating.  Don't be fooled into thinking it is just a cute little teen movie, it's not.  I made the mistake of watching this with my parents a couple of years ago, and I had forgotten had racy it was and how inappropriate Mr. Novotny's relationship with Tracy was.  Oops.  Trust me, there's nothing more fun than sitting with your mom and dad through an endless cavalcade of "Fuck me, Mr. McAllister, fuck me."  Yeah, let's not ever do that again.

P.P.S.  Don't see the Japanese remake of this movie, "Erection."  I thought it would be the same type of movie but it wasn't.  Please don't make the same mistake that I did.

P.P.P.S.  Want to see a really funny video that compares the storyline of Election to Hilary Clinton vs Barack Obama?  Well enjoy.


* My favorite IMDB user reviews about Election:

Alexander Payne's uncompromising look at highschool politics. Foul-mouthed, sharp and funny - 28 October 2006
With me, Alexander Payne can do no wrong. Before he entered Hollywood's big league of directors with ABOUT SCHMIDT and SIDEWAYS, he made this remarkable film about a highschool election. But this is hardly your average highschool flick, this is an intelligently written, foul-mouthed film, filled with colorful characters and plenty of laughs in the process.

In a pitch-perfect role, Reese Witherspoon is Tracy Flick, one of those irritating girls that are always in the front row, always raise their hand and wanna do something for the sake of the school, read, for their own resume. Tracy Flick is one of those, a fiercely calculating careerist who will stop at nothing to get the main prize, the office of student body president at Carver High. Since she's running unopposed, nothing seems in her way at getting what she wants, again. History teacher and student government adviser Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick, Ferris Bueller reversed) seems content with his life, but is worn out by his love-less marriage, and by the plight of his best friend and colleague, sacked for sleeping with consenting but under age Tracy Flick. With the coming elections, McAllister is appalled by the prospect of working closely with this little nagging career bitch, and charged with overseeing the proceedings, discreetly sponsors a rival candidate, dumb but popular jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), to enter the election. But when Paul's sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), an embittered and unpopular girl announces her candidacy, the election becomes a really back-biting and nasty affair, with Jim McAllister getting more than he bargained for.

I think this film might appeal even more to adults than teenagers. If you like Alexander Payne's uncompromising approach to his subjects, this will definitely be up your alley, with everything from lesbianism to adultery thrown in the mix. Ideally casted all the way, with Matthew Broderick, after a number of uninteresting roles in lame movies, really making his mark. He gives his role a sort of understatement that makes Mr. McAllister a hopelessly tragic, but utterly lovable loser.

Cynical - just the way I like them! - 20 February 2000
This is quite simply one of the finest movies I have ever seen. It has incredible pace and flair, with both the script and the direction demanding equal attention. And it just works so well on so many levels. Whilst it is a political satire, it also stands well as a story in its own right. It's great to see Matthew Broderick in a good film. Reese Witherspoone turns in what I consider to be a career-best, and Chris Klein is wonderfully endearing as a jock with a heart of gold.

What I really love about Election is the way its pace doesn't let up at all. By the time you've finished you feel like you've seen a good two and a half hours of movie. It's the only film I know that seems longer than it is in a good way.

This film made me laugh out loud more than any other I can remember that isn't just a dumb comedy. But Election also doesn't take itself too seriously. The direction can accurately be described as deadpan - with Chris Klein, stripped of his ability to play football, gazing soulfully out to sea, and falling asleep over a book on philosophy. The way that each major character is afforded a voiceover, giving us an amusing insight into their pysche, is a wonderful technique, and the freezeframes of Reese Witherspoone's contorted facial expressions truly are moments to treasure.

What more can I say? Election is smart, funny, and biting. It maintains its brilliance for the entire duration of the movie, and the ending is wholly satisfying. In fact, I can't actually think of one word of criticism. You'll have to search long and hard to find a better film anywhere, which is why I'm giving it a stellar nine out of ten.

One of the best dark comedies ever - 15 July 2003
Election is easily my favorite comedy and one of my top ten favorite movies of all time. It brings out the best in most of its cast and the stylistic quality of the film is both outrageous and subtle at the same time. However, the most amazing part of Election is that it makes an incredible movie and bases it around a subject so simple as a high school election.

But do not be fooled by its simplicity in basic plot because hiding behind its summary is a film that truly was underappreciated and very underrated. MTV has never and will never again get a movie as stunning as this.

Reese Witherspoon gives the performance of her career by playing Tracy Flick, a neurotic, self-obsessed go getter with a somewhat dark past that puts her on edge with Jim McCalister, a teacher who truly will stop at nothing to bring her down.

I will not say any more about Election except that those who have not seen this movie are truly missing out on an amazing film

A brilliant satire - 18 April 2006
This is the film Alexander Payne made before "About Schmidt" and "Sideways" and it put him on the map. It's easy to see why. It's smart and intelligent as well as being very funny. It's a brilliant satire on the way American political campaigns are run and it's set in a high school. (It's probably more effective than many other political satires set in real seats of Government). Tracy Flick is the ambitious (and ruthless) student running for student president. She has the brash confidence of someone convinced they are always right. She talks in clichés and quotes Thoreau. If she could put into practice some of the things she pulls from books she might actually make a half-decent leader but Tracy is oblivious to everything that is real and human and fallible. Tracy, in other words, is bad for people and the only person to see it is her teacher and it's his job to oversee the election.

In these parts, Reece Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick are pitch-perfect. Witherspoon had yet to establish herself and Broderick's career had stalled. "Election" put both of them on track and I doubt if either of them has given a better performance. In this film Payne was honing that serio-comic tone that would come to fruition in "Sideways" but already he was proving a master at establishing mood and a brilliant director of actors. He is so good at the serious stuff, in fact, that you would like him to jettison the comedy altogether, though here you're glad he doesn't. This is laugh out loud funny. What it isn't is another American High School Comedy. File it next to "Rushmore".

What a hoot! - 14 July 1999
This was one of the wittiest, most enjoyable movies I've seen in a long time. People who didn't like it just don't get that dry, dark-comedy sense of humor. Reese Witherspoon was outstanding--she should be considered come Oscar time. The cinematography made the whole movie--those freeze-frames were hilarious. It was amazing how Matthew Broderick's character evolved from Mr. Joe Teacher of the Year into this ruthless, cunning, person set on revenge. And I was on his side! Tracy Flick was so annoying, you wanted her to fail. Everyone knew someone like that in High School--one of those goody-two-shoes, brown-nosing asses who made you want to puke. Chris Klein was quite effective as the mind-numbingly stupid but sweet-hearted jock who wouldn't hurt a fly. Mind you, this is not like some Adam Sandler mindless comedy.(Nothing against Adam, I like him too!) It's quite clever and well-done and even though it's set in a high school, the humor is much more adult. I don't think it can be fully appreciated by young people who have not really been out in the world and seen how people get ahead by stomping on others. Thumbs up

High school comedy for grown-ups - 25 February 2002
A high school comedy for adults. In an institution as authoritarian as the average American high school, elections for the student body are exercises in tokenism. This doesn't stop one Tracey Flick (Reese Witherspoon) from putting her all into getting elected president. She has some competition from a dim jock, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), who is put up to it by teacher Jim Macalister (Matthew Broderick). Macalister wants to revenge his former colleague Novotny who fell foul of Tracey's charms and was dismissed but instead he gets himself into lots of trouble.

Good dialogue, a fast pace and a cynical attitude help to make this an effective satire. Political correctness is seen as just another way of keeping people in line, and when it is incovenient it is ignored. When Metzler's lesbian sister decides to run in the election on an anti-authority platform the principal immediately suspends her for no good reason. The school, named for a distinguished Afro-American agricultural scientist, George Washington Carver, has hardly a black in the place (though this is Nebraska). Clever use of voice-over from several characters rounds out the storyline nicely. The eternally sunny weather is faintly menacing, somehow. The only weak point was the ending, something of an anti-climax I thought.

Reese Witherspoon plays Tracey the human tornado with just the right amount of occasional hesitation to remind us there is a human being inside there somewhere. Matthew Broderick as the teacher sucked in by her vortex makes his character's predicament look inevitable. Chris Klein (in his first role - he was 'discovered' for this film) has a downhome Keanu Reeves style just right for the part. He and the director Alexander Payne both come from Omaha, Nebraska, which was used for location shooting, though I don't think the Chamber of Commerce will be inviting them back. Middle America comes across as a pretty tightly buttoned-down place with not a lot of tolerance for odd-balls.

Anyway, it's refreshing to see a high school comedy with verve and bite, and a good antidote to `American Pie', in which Chris Klein also appears in a paler copy of his role here. This film has some parallels with another school comedy `Rushmore' but here the satire is sharper and the story more absorbing.

Ok, so maybe we're all a little like Tracy. - 7 May 1999
When one writes a biting satire, it logically makes sense that the person who is insulting should know his or her topic. This is why high school life has never truly undergone an appropriate cinema vision. We either get "The Substitute" or "High School High". Either way, it's a sad collection of overdrawn clichés that don't work anymore.

This is where "Election" drawns its thin line. Every character in this movie is a person (or persons) that you know. We've all met a Tracy Flick, Paul Metzler, or had a teacher like Jim McAllister. Although each character may be taken to extremes in this movie, you feel for them cause you know them.

Hands down, Reese Witherspoon has proven herself an incredible actress. She can play all the roles she wants, without typecasting herself, be it school slut ("Pleasantville"), innocent virgin ("Cruel Intentions"), or, as "Election" shows, Conniving Overachiever. This may be her best role yet as she makes you both hate and love Tracy. You can't stand the fact that what would be typically a very flat character has so many levels to her. It's so refreshing.

Matthew Broderick is the most underrated actor of our time. He needs recognition already! And don't give me any of that "Ferris Bueller" and "Glory" stuff. And don't mention "Road to Wellville" and "Godzilla" either. For such a horrible person as his character tries to be, you can't help but feel sorry for him because he fails at everything and you know that streak just isn't gonna stop.

I will confess, I am a gifted student in my high school, and I know a lot of "Tracy Flick"s. My classmates are Tracys. My best friends are Tracys.  In fact, I'm a bit of a Tracy myself. So this movie was so refreshing cause it was so accurate. Right down to the clubs she was in. And several of my teachers are McAllister's too. Giving all their time to the school and then getting nothing but gray hairs in return. It's really quite sad.

As for the writing and directing, I'm no expert, but the odd way of telling the story through 5 or 6 different character's and yet also from an omnipotent point of view, just may be the funniest thing ever. What a work. Freeze frames, little notes on the screen, stock footage...I want to see more works like this. This is great movie making at a new point of finesse.

Bottom line is this: school has never looked so real on the silver screen. MTV Films needs to stay independant and stay in the present (to avoid any "200 Ciggarettes" disasters again). I swear, this movie is practically a real life documentary. Even the bathroom pass made of wood that Tracy has rings true. At least to me. But then again, exiting the movie you seem to learn something about "morals and ethics". Maybe we all have a little Tracy in us after all.

* My favorite trivia about Election:

* Ranked #9 on Entertainment Weekly's 50 Best High School Movies (2006)

* Thora Birch left the filming in Omaha on her third day because of creative differences with the director.

* Apples are featured prominently in the movie, usually before trouble arrives for a character. They are used as an analogy to entice Paul Metzler to enter the election, an apple tree is shown before Mr. McAllister is stung by a bee, apples hang above the doorway to Mr. McAllister's living room right before he discovers his wife knows he cheated on her, and Mr. McAllister wins the Apple Teacher of The Year Award at the beginning of the movie.

* Since the movie was shot in a real high school (Papillion La Vista High School, Omaha, Nebraska), adjacent classrooms had real class going on while some scenes for the movie were being done. In the soundtrack, some background noises come from real teachers and students. The director decided to leave that in as to give the movie a more realistic sound.

* In the gym scenes, since the extras were real high school students, the director faced the problem of not having enough of them because of the SAT season, and many of them having already found out the sometimes tedious process of working as an extra. As a solution for the shots requiring a full gym to be seen, the director asked the extras to move two or three times from their seats to look as if there were more people with the help of editing. The wide shot showing both sides of the gym was done in less than 20 minutes when the teachers of Papillion La Vista Highschool asked more students to join the film shooting.

* Chris Klein's debut film and his first professional acting job. He was a student at Millard West High School in Omaha when he was discovered by Alexander Payne while looking for a school to use for filming (another one was eventually used). Although a number of other actors auditioned for Paul, Klein stuck in Payne's mind.

* My favorite scene in Election:

I already mentioned the applies, oranges, and pears scene, but since I didn't mention her in the writeup I supposed to should throw a bone to Tammy Metzler and her speech to the student body about how elections are stupid.  I can guarantee you that speech would get that exact same reaction in any high school in America.  

Student:  Fuck the school!  
Student Body:  YEAH!
*student is suspended*

Election at the IMDB

Election at Wikipedia

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