Monday, July 20, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films --- Election (Alexander Payne)

Here's what I've covered so far:

Intro: My Year at "Film School"
The (sorta)Forgettable Films
The Films That Just Don't Hold Up
When Bad Movies Happen to Good Directors

The Forgotten Gems of 1999:
The War Zone (Tim Roth)
Sunshine (István Szabó)
Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein)
Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot)
Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan)
Bowfinger (Frank Oz)
Cookie's Fortune (Robert Altman)
Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton)
The Iron Giant (Brad Bird)
October Sky (Joe Johnston)

Alexander Payne’s Election is proof that 1999 was one of the strongest years in film history. Here is a film that falls outside of my top 10 for the year, but in any other year would easily sit in the top 5. It’s a brilliant satire that takes shots at everyone, and no easy shots, either. Here is a satire that feels authentic in what it is satirizing; everything from the settings (a high school) to the characters (over achieving student, jocks, aloof teachers) to the situations (affairs, student elections) are all elements that even the casual filmgoer can relate to. Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor are more interested in satirizing from the middle (much like Payne’s film before this Citizen Ruth, which refused to take a stand on either the pro-life or anti-abortion issue), refusing to take sides, and the result is a scathing satire that doesn’t attack from a specific side or feel mean spirited, and rarely misses a beat.

The film takes place in a high school that seems immediately recognizable: banners on the wall, dreary colors and lockers that line the halls, teachers in short sleeve shirts with ties, etc. The film opens as we’re introduced to the two primary characters Jim McAllister (played wonderfully by Matthew Broderick) and Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon’s best performance of her career). We’ve all met someone like Tracy (and Mr. McAllister, too, the teacher who is obviously trying to be liked by his students), an overachiever who always has their hand raised for every question; the type of person who doesn’t understand why someone would challenge what they say, or, as one scene shows, somebody who tells people who are helping her hang a banner “you can’t put tape on the outside of the poster…take it down and redo it”. This is what Tracy is like. She’s running for school president, and understands that it’s just a popularity contest, but seeks to bring dignity to the position, or, in true political fashion, her idea of dignity; and despite it being a popularity contest, though, she uses fear as a way of getting votes, and sadly misconstrues people being afraid of her with people liking her “policies” and her “vision”.

Payne showcases the school election as a way of making a nifty satire on how real politicians are nothing more than immature teenagers making false accusations, petty insults, and empty promises that really have no merit outside of the halls of the school (and even then the stale, monotonous administrators, hilariously portrayed by Phil Reeves as principal Hendricks, are really the ones making the decisions so that they don’t disrupt the “order” of the school district too much). What Payne also does is show how Tracy isn’t the only monster in the film worth taking shots at. Jim’s former colleague and friend Dave (Mark Harelik) had a sexual relationship with Tracy a year prior to when we are introduced to the characters. Here Payne hilariously shows how some of these teachers are more like predators than educators, and in one fell swoop Dave has lost his job, his friends, and his family – he’s left looking like the most pathetic character in the film (we get a shot of him at the end of the film as Tracy, who misses Dave, opines via narration "I wonder if Dave finished his book" and then Payne smash cuts to Dave pricing cans of food at a local grocery store). But then Payne lets us look deeper into the life of Jim, and what we see is a man, who like his old pal Dave, is forced to work along side Tracy (Jim is head of the election committee) thus seeing the allure that his friend fell for. To combat this urge, he enlists the aide of Paul Metzler (at-the-time real life high schooler Chris Klein), the star football player who has just broken his leg and won’t be able to play his senior season. Jim thinks it would be a great idea for him to take on Tracy in the election, perhaps as revenge for what she did to his friend Dave, or perhaps, as a way of deflecting Tracy’s siren song.

What ultimately happens is that Jim becomes so wary of Tracy’s shenanigans and guerrilla political tactics (there’s a great scene where Tracy, in an attempt to re-hang her own poster tears down all the opposing candidates posters) – and Tracy popping up in his sexual fantasies as he has sex with his wife – that he rigs the election so that Tracy will lose and Paul will win. Because oafish no-nothings like Paul (who are dubbed “genuine”) are better than well-articulated, know-it-all overachievers (who are dubbed as “insincere”). Wow, I don’t think Payne even knew how prophetic his film would be.

The plot is pretty standard stuff (the result of the election and Jim’s attempts at having an affair run parallel with each other rather smoothly), but the story by Payne and Taylor (who also collaborated together on About Schmidt and Sideways) adapted from the hilarious novel by Tom Perrotta (who also wrote the wonderful Little Children) is everything but standard satire. As I mentioned earlier Payne is not interested in just taking shots at Tracy and people of her ilk. The teachers take just as much heat, as do the cliques that high schools across America have (the jocks, the nerds, and so forth), the by-the-numbers school administrators that create up tight, ready-to-explode teachers like Jim, and the parents who push their kids too hard (Tracy’s mom). I like that Payne isn’t interested in petty humor, and I like that he lets us look deeply into the lives of these losers.

I think we’ve all had a teacher like Mr. McAllister: someone who does their job well year after year, but as one scene shows us at the beginning, teaches the same lesson plan year after year. This is a sure-fire way to burn out as a teacher, and it’s understandable why he begins to devolve at the end of the film. In fact one of the funniest things about the film is how Broderick plays McAllister as a man so hapless that when he tries to meet his lover for a tryst all he gets out of it is a bee sting to the eye. There’s another great scene where McAllister is trying to explain to Paul the need for democracy – he uses the example of what would happen if people only had one fruit to choose from (he uses oranges as an example), and then one day there’s an apple, and all of a sudden people have a choice. His hope is to get Paul to see why he should run for class president, to inspire some passion into Paul…instead Paul just says: “I also like bananas”.

Payne’s camera also astutely observes the inner workings of a public high school. The principal’s lexicon is indebted to clichés we have all heard our principals say over the years. Payne may take his shots at these characters, especially Tracy, but we are given a few scenes that show just why Tracy may be the way she is. One scene in particular shows Tracy, after learning that she lost the election, crying in her room. Her mom enters and consoles her by telling her “here, take one of mommy’s pills.” As she shushes her to sleep she says: “maybe you needed more posters, honey; or, if you’d just taken my suggestions about your speech…”. I like what Payne does here in getting the viewer to empathize just for a moment with Tracy Flick. We see that these types of overachieving students are just marionettes, and the parents are gladly pulling the strings as they vicariously live through their children.

The performances are all top notch: the aforementioned Phil Reeves as the principal; Jessica Campbell as Paul’s younger sister Tammy who also gets involved with the election; and yes, even Chris Klein finds all the right notes as the oafish football player (who is just as much a marionette as Tracy is). Broderick’s McAllister is nice enough guy in the classroom, but Payne sees him as a man just going through the motions, and students like Tracy challenge and disrupt that repetition. His downward spiral, and the scenes that showcase this (his manic rush to give a test and prepare a room for his tryst with Dave’s ex-wife is edited perfectly and hilariously executed), are some of the best parts about the films final act.

Witherspoon was still finding her bearings as an actress before this role, and with Tracy Flick she was given a character to showcase her acting chops. Sure, most everyone in the world thinks of her a Elle Fields or June Carter, but Tracy Flick is easily her best performance. She’s always been a good actress (see The Man in the Moon and Freeway as proof), but in Election she ping-pongs from evoking hatred and empathy (I mean we feel sorry for her because we feel like she’s not living a “normal” teenage life, and there’s the scenes too where she is being taken advantage of by adults like Dave and her mom) effortlessly, and creates one of the most memorable characters in all of 90’s cinema.

Election still stands as my favorite Alexander Payne film. His Sideways was a brilliant film, too, but more serious than satire, and I personally prefer the satirical side of Payne. His film is a perfect satire because it knows that great satire doesn’t vilify, it doesn’t take cheap shots; rather, it stands in the middle and attack from all sides, and makes a very astute observation that most of the politicians we vote for now were at one time (or still are) Tracy Flick’s. We’re choosing from a group of hopeful politicians who have been playing the same game, and running the same campaigns since high school. Election is easily one of the best films of 1999, and proves just how strong the films in the top 10 are since Payne’s film finds itself on the outside looking in. It’s truly a forgotten gem as most of the conversations I have with people about Payne’s films usually revolve around Sideways or About Schmidt. People should give Election a shot, and then do yourself a favor and watch his other hilariously dark satire Citizen Ruth. They’re both perfect examples of how to do satire correctly.

This brings us to the end of the “Forgotten Gems” feature in my quest to revisit the films of 1999. It’s been so much fun and so incredibly rewarding to revisit some of these forgotten gems. I hope they gave you some good ideas for DVD rentals, or helped you remember how good these movies are. Up next, the top 10…an intro to the top 10 and an explanation as to why some films weren’t included (release date confusion and all that stuff) will be up next week. I will be most likely taking a sabbatical from the blog after that, sprinkling in easy, no-nonsense posts here and there, but I will officially begin the top 10 in late August (when I get back from my honeymoon).

Extra Stills:


  1. Yet another great review. If you put this much work into the forgotten films, I'm excited to see what you have in store for the top ten (I just raised the expectations that much higher for you - don't fail me).

    You make a great point about Payne and how he satirizes every party in the film. You empathize with one character for a few moments, before realizing that they are just as pathetic as all the others. It's actually done quite subtly, which is nice, considering an over-the-top parody would have probably been a lot easier for Payne to pull off, considering the subject matter (although obviously lessening the quality of the film).

    It's funny that you speak of the good characters in the film, considering that almost all of them are "stock" types, so to speak. That Payne is able to make them into more than just cliches is what makes the film that much better.

    And Reese. I don't feel like denigrating the rest of her ouvre, but for my money, this really is her best moment in her career. A great role and a brilliant character.

  2. Thanks for making things that much more difficult for me, hehe. I agree with you about Witherspoon's performance as I too think it's her best.

  3. Kevin, I didn't forget this film. Witherspoon deserved the Oscar for her performance, and you're right to cite the scene with Tracy and her mother as typifying Payne's sympathetically satiric approach to his characters. He doesn't release films often enough.

  4. Great write-up on this wicked satire. You write:

    "We’ve all met someone like Tracy (and Mr. McAllister, too, the teacher who is obviously trying to be liked by his students)"

    And I think that this is one of the film's biggest strengths. We all know people like the ones depicted in this film and it allows you to quickly connect with what Payne and co. are trying to do, here. As you point out, I like that Payne goes after everyone in this film. He doesn't pick on one character but shows that they all have faults and virtues.

    As much as I love this film, I still think Payne's finest is SIDEWAYS, which is an easy cop-out, I know, but the team-up of Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church is just too good for words. Not to mention, an absolutely gorgeous and charming Virginia Madsen (who needs to do more films like this!). But I also think that I love this film also because of how much of a throwback to those quirky buddy films of the '70s it feels like -- films like CALIFORNIA SPLIT or FREEBIE & THE BEAN or THE LAST DETAIL...

    And you're certainly right about how wonderful Reese Witherspoon is in this film. Altho, again, I really thought she hit it out of the park with WALK THE LINE. I was totally captivated by her performance in that film and felt that she really embodied the spirit of June Carter Cash. Every time I watch it, I get that feeling that you're watching something really special. She certainly deserved the Oscar that year.

  5. Samuel:

    I haven't forgotten it either, and really this was just a way for me to talk about this film in the context of this project. However, I did run across a lot of people when I worked at a video store who raved about About Schmidt and Sideways and I would say "what about Election?" To which they would reply..."oh yeah I forgot about that one".

    So some people who were obvious fans of Payne's work did indeed forget about his 1999 masterpiece.

    I agree that he takes way too long between films.

    Thanks for dropping by.

  6. J.D.:

    I love Sideways, too. In fact I would say I adore it. The end of that film gets to me every time I watch it.

    And yes, the acting across the board in that movie is great -- I just think I prefer Payne's sharper tongue in Election as opposed to Sideways where he definitely makes some astute satire, but takes his foot off the gas in the third act(and he even veers into slapstick with the "home invasion/wallet" scene). The coda to that film is much sweeter than anything on display in Election, and even though I loved it, I prefer this kind all-out satire by just a nose.

    I liked Reese quite a bit in the Johnny Cash film, but I don't think I can ever look at her without thinking about Tracy Flick...that's the sign of a great performance.

    Thanks, as always, for stopping by and for the kind words.

  7. "Payne showcases the school election as a way of making a nifty satire on how real politicians are nothing more than immature teenagers making false accusations, petty insults, and empty promises that really have no merit outside of the halls of the school (and even then the stale, monotonous administrators, hilariously portrayed by Phil Reeves as principal Hendricks, are really the ones making the decisions so that they don’t disrupt the “order” of the school district too much...."

    Great passage! But this entire comprehensive review belongs in the Hugo Stiglitz Hall of Fame. It's infectiously enthusiastic and consumately qualified.

    Some points: The opening really examined with insight the high school setting that underlines the film. The "Tracy isn't the only Monster" discussion is compelling, as is the later one when you rightly claim its prophetic how th edo-nothing ssometimes score over the "overachievers."

    You point out so many important moments in the film, like for example the compelling one where the posters are ripped down, or the fruit comparsion posed by Broderick.

    This film peels away the facades around everyone, and no one character really comes off as any kind of a model human being.

    I also laughed my ass off at the girl who gave the brief speech saying how much the school and the world sucked. Stereotype? Maybe, but still a gas.

    SIDEWAYS remains my favorite Payne, but this on epushes close. I understand you like this abit better as a point of satire trumping something more serious. But i felt Payne really prought various elements together in his wine saga. And I agree with you mentioning both ABOUT SCHMIDT and LITTLE CHILDREN (Perrotta), which are fine films.

    Witherspoon, indeed gives her best performance ever here, edging ahead of the heartbreaking one she gave in her lovely first film, Robert Mulligan's MAN ON THE MOON.

    To repeat: This is an extraordinary review, and one that reminds the reader of your special gifts.

  8. Sam:

    You are too kind! Thank for the lovely extolling of this review I had a lot of fun writing.

    I love the scene with Tammy (Paul's sister), too. Her speech is hilarious, and exactly the kind of humor Payne is perfect at. I agree that as an overall film Sideways is better, but my favorite is still this gem from 1999.

    I also agree with you about Mulligan's Man in the Moon. It's a poignant film about first love. Quite underrated, and apt that the director of two great coming of age stories, To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer of '42, left us with one of the best as sadly Man in the Moon was his last film. It also has a wonderful performance by Sam Waterston who plays Witherspoon's father.

    Thanks again for your exceedingly kind words.