A Film by Alexander Payne
The second feature outing from writer/director Alexander Payne is an uncomfortably funny comedy in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh. The term "black humor" once evoked a kind of satiric wit that bordered on the cruel (but not the sadistic, as it usually does nowadays), and that is the kind of comedy on which Election is based. The writing team of Payne, Tony Perotta (who wrote the novel on which the film is based) and Jim Taylor has produced a script that has both comedy and bite.
We observe the predicaments into which the characters lead themselves and their hopelessly misguided and futile efforts to regain control of their lives with rueful laughter, but also with a painful sense of how helpless we ourselves might be in the same situation. The film skewers the platitudes by which we live.
The plot revolves around Jim McAllister, a sucessful high school teacher in his middle thirties. He has been elected teacher of the year three times in his twelve years at the school. He is respected and admired. He has friends and a loving wife. In the course of the film, we watch that whole illusion of a perfect life relentlessly unravel.
That life is based on conventions, accepted and most often unexamined, to which we adhere. They are good conventions, morally defensible and almost universally accepted - yet every day we or someone we know contravenes them. It is not because we are bad people. It is because they are not accurate- they do not fit satisfyingly with our inner lives. And their hold on us, that sometimes seems so powerful, is in fact very tenuous. More than anything, they are a function of our self-decepetions, the lies we try to believe in order to control and rationalize our behavior.
Most of the time, this dislocation goes unnoticed. We manage to sublimate our impulses or to totally supress them - for a time. But we live with a mechanism Freud described as "the return of the repressed," a mechanism by which those powerful impulses that are unresolved eventually find expression. We do something which we say is "not like me," and wonder where that came from.
It is this juxtaposition of our moral and philosophical belief system and our actions that is at the core of Election. The illusionary nature of our "control" over our lives and the price we pay for those illusions is it's text. This painful and potentially subversive subject is handled with great wit and intelligence. As in the best of Waugh, laughter is the painkiller that makes the vivisection possible. It is a testament to Payne's filmmaking skills that many people will simply appreciate this film for its comedy, and only later (if at all) reflect on the potentitally disturbing deeper levels.
The most important part of this treatment is that the film works so well as comedy. The dialogue is clever and has a consistant, authentic sound. The plot is complex but not artificially complicated. Payne never cheapens his characterizations to go for the easy laugh. The gags are cleverly conceived and almost flawlessly executed, and they develop naturally out of the plot and characters - are never imposed on the film.
Payne establishes a specific cinematic syntax for the film, using freeze frame and jump cut effects to comment on the action. He employs a lot of "voice-overs," which often destroy a film's flow and give it an air of artificiality, but which are wholly-apropriate and effective here because of the film's clear self-definition as a narrated story. Much of the film's effectiveness depends on our seeing the contrast between the events on the screen and the characters' descriptions of them.
The film is filled with wonderful, off-hand satirical comments, as in a sequence in which several of the main characters are seen at prayer. Their one-sided conversations reveal volumes about personal and cultural concepts of "spirituality" and the nature of God. In another scene, jump cuts between the faces of a varied group of characters - the High School Principal and Vice Principal, a couple of students, parents and the school janitor - involved in a confrontation with McAllister manage to convey an ironic range of private motivations for their seemingly single-minded public condemnation.
A scene in which one of the characters is "punished" by being sent to a Catholic all-girls school (which for her is the equivalent of Br'er Rabbit being "thrown in the Briar patch") humorously depicts the monumental gaps in communication that conventions of parent-child relationships force upon us. Another, where a fellow teacher and friend of McAllister is forced to resign over an indescretion with a student, is painfully funny, as we see a grown man squirming like a four-year-old, trying to explain - and even understand - his own inexplicable behavior and the illusion that caused it.
Unlike the "little-guy" heroes of conventional comedies, from Chaplin to Ben Stiller, McAllister does not emerge victorious from the unequal encounter between the depths of his own psyche and his veneer of self-image. On the contrary, an important part of the dark "joke" is that he has learned nothing - he is just as mired in self-deception at the end of the film as he was at the outset; it's just a different set of delusions.
In that sense, the film could be seen as a cautionary tale, but one free of pontificating and moralizing. The implied tone with which the film concludes confirms a compassionate but unsentimentalized look at human frailty. As Shakespeare's Puck puts it: "What fools these mortals be!"
Credit for the film's success must also go to the cast. First among equals is the amazing Reese Witherspoon. Mostly employed heretofore in more conventional teen roles, she gets her teeth deep into this material. In the pivotal role of type-A super-teen Tracy Flick, she gives a performance imbued with a variety of nuance that is stunning and an intensity that is relentless. Her character could easily have become a one-dimensional stereotype, but she invests it with an edge of sensitivity and vulnerability that makes McAllister's simultaneous impulses to save her, flee from her and kill her completely understandable.
As McAllister, Matthew Broderick finally gets a chance to show what he can do with a complex character. He takes full advantage of the opportunity. His Jim McAllister is a truly nice guy, but one so completely at the mercy of his unexamined life that once he ventures outside the safety of his practiced routines of thought and action, he is totally lost. He is a rationalizing, frightened, opportunistic loser, who seems to have learned nothing from his trials - but as realized by Broderick, it is impossible not to sympathize with him, and not to suffer an uncomfortable frisson of indentification.
Newcomer Chris Klein as High School golden-boy Paul Metzler who is recruited by McAllister to oppose Tracy in the Student Government Election that gives the film its title, brings a sweet-natured cluelessness to the role that is a perfect foil for the storm of Machiavellian manipulation that swirls around him. His blissful ignorance - which also suggests a kind of innocence here - is the illusion that protects, but also imprisons him.
As his sister, Tammy, another newcomer, Jessica Campbell, embodies teen-age, slacker angst in a way that is universal yet authentically personal. Her Student Government election speech to the assembled high-school is a triumph of cut-through-the-crap analysis that will bring rueful smiles to the face of anyone who ever suffered through that farcical charade. She has several of the best moments in the film, and she brings them off with delicacy and assurance.
As in any succesful film, the minor characters play a key role in supporting the whole effort. Delaney Driscoll as Linda Novotny, estranged wife of McAllister's best friend, and a key player in his own unraveling, brings an appropriately confusing and believable mix of disillusion, self-righteousness and ruthlessness to the part. Mark Harelick, as her husband and McAllister's colleague, Dave, is excruciatingly vulnerable as he tries to rationalize his lack of impulse control through sentimentality.
As the self-interested, vindictive, small-minded tyrant of a High School Principal, Phil Reeves evokes the pettiness and ego-mania of such characters with skill and economy, adding enough individual traits to give the character a sense of real substance. As the toadying yes-man of a vice prinicpal, with his own selfish agenda, Matt Molloy manages to convey - mostly by smirks, grimmaces, body language, tones of voice and inflection, the monumental frustrations and insecurities of his character and position.
An imaginative but never intrusively clever use of technique and style manages to convey a strong sense of actual experience within the story, even in spite of such obviously artificial devices as the freeze-frames and voice-overs. Sets and costumes reinforce the sense of reality. The High School looks and feels like a high school, with its anonymous rooms and corridors, the tacky teachers's lounge with its health hazard of a refrigerator, the artifical busyness during the day and the overwhelming emptiness at night.
Even with all the excellent support he had, much of the credit must go to the director/co-screenwriter. He helped develop the literate and cleanly-edited script. He had a part in selecting the cast and production team. He shaped and melded the excellent work over which he presided into a finished product of integrity and great interest.
Payne's first feature effort was the critically acclaimed (but unfortunately little-seen) satire that poked savage fun at all sides in the media-amplified debate on abortion rights, Citizen Ruth. He follows it up here with another accomplished and original piece of work. For those who have feared that the ascension of the Farrelly brothers and their clones meant an end of intelligent comedy in America, here is proof that thoughtful satire of the highest and most unsparing order is alive and well.
That's my take on it. What's yours?