Hardball High School

Election gets its politics right; Cronenberg leaves a gooey mess.

Directed by Alexander Payne
Paramount Pictures

Directed by David Cronenberg
Dimension Films

American satire rarely comes more winning than Election, an exuberantly caustic comedy that shows the symbiotic relationship between political go-get-’em-ism and moral backsliding. That’s hardly a new theme, but the director, Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, 1996), has a Preston Sturges-like gift for going against the grain of his own cynicism, so that the movie fairly drips with irony without ever losing its raffish energy or its sense of wonder. It feels miraculously fresh.

Election unfolds in an Omaha, Neb., high school, where its go-getter, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), mounts a tireless run for presidency of the student council. Flick’s name is clearly an hommage to Sammy Glick, the Hollywood hustler of Budd Schulberg’s classic portrait of ‘30s ambition, What Makes Sammy Run? Glick was viewed through the eyes of Al Manheim, a jaded lefty alcoholic who regarded this new species of capitalist human with contempt but also with awe: Sammy was a force of nature. The Al Manheim of Election is a teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who watches Tracy’s hand shoot up in class and can’t bring himself to call on her. Her know-it-all persona makes him sick, and without fully realizing what he’s doing, he sets about trying to sabotage her candidacy.

Some achievers–call them carpe diem-ists–have talent and passion and deserve to rise, but many are rockets without payloads. That’s Tracy. Friendless, encased in a hothouse terrarium of her own ambition, she has no goals beyond furthering her own career. At the same time, there’s something maddeningly attractive about her: She’s a hot little number. Payne freezes on her face at its most nauseatingly self-congratulatory, while McAllister recalls (in voice-over narration) how his fellow teacher and best friend, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), initiated a wildly destructive affair with her and got himself booted out of the school and his marriage. Tracy grew up without a father and with a mother (Colleen Camp) whose hobby was writing to successful women and asking how they did it. In class, her legs cross primly under her desk while her hand snaps up like a Sieg Heil. When she stamps out “Tracy Flick for President” buttons on her hand-operated button press, she sets her big jaw and grits her teeth and bears down as if eliminating her rivals with every squeeze. The cogs in her brain turn feverishly. Scanning a rival’s nominating petition, she seizes instantly on an unfamiliar name: “Who’s he? I’ve never heard of him.”

Election will make Witherspoon a star. The actress came into her own three years ago in Freeway, a B-movie Red Riding Hood story that was a little too campily self-conscious for its own credibility. But its central section, in which the runaway trailer-park teen climbs into a car driven by a serial killer (Kiefer Sutherland), made for a ghoulishly amusing psychodrama, and Witherspoon’s mixture of soulfulness and incorrigibility was enchanting. She’s OK playing victims, as in Cruel Intentions, but she goes into the comic stratosphere when her characters have a mighty will–when she can use that steel jaw and laser-light delivery. Announcing that “the weak always try to sabotage the strong,” Tracy instantly sizes up Broderick’s McAllister. The two work magically well together. Broderick provoked a lot of nasty reviews in Godzilla (1998), but it wasn’t his fault that his worried wiseguy act came to embody everything that was lightweight and fatuously noncommittal about that awful movie. In Election, he has his first fully rounded grown-up role, and he’s perfect: He makes the teacher’s anguish absurdly funny without caricaturing the pain. Broderick’s McAllister is a kid who wakes up one day and realizes he’s grown and has nothing to show for it. Stuck in a sexless and childless marriage (he retreats to the basement to watch porn tapes) and presented with a certainty–Tracy’s election–he makes the fatal decision to fight the power. He picks his own candidate, a sweet, injured jock named Paul Metzler (the delightful Chris Klein), a kid so unlike Tracy that he can’t even bring himself to check off his own name on the ballot.

E lection is scaled small. Working from a trim novel by Tom Perrotta, Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor don’t squander their resources on crowds or parades or elaborate spoofs of ceremony, the way most political satires tend to do. Nor do they feign an understanding of the populace, in this case a student body that seems uninterested in which of the candidates ends up getting a job that usually consists of planning the prom. They keep the focus narrow, on the individuals. But each private act has rippling and tumultuous public consequences. The geometry of the movie becomes dizzying. When the girlfriend (Frankie Ingrassia) of Paul’s lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) has a bout of homosexual panic and throws herself at the unwitting jock, the vindictive Tammy jumps into the race as a third candidate, adopting a nihilist “Who Cares?” platform that nearly sandbags the whole election. And through some weird transference (displaced lust for Tracy?), McAllister becomes fixated on Linda Novotny (Delaney Driscoll), the wife of his exiled best friend. His desperate attempts to bed her make him reckless and seal his doom: Stung by a wasp outside her window, he staggers into school on Election Day with his eye as swollen and saggy as Quasimodo’s–and morally hunchbacked, to boot.

It’s difficult not to overpraise Election: It’s perfect. Some will complain that McAllister’s slapstick-tragic lust for Linda shifts the focus too much from the campaign to the bedroom, but the movie means to be more than a study of electoral machinations. Unlike Mike Nichols’ glib Primary Colors (1998), which seized every opportunity to take cheap shots at its characters, Payne seizes every opportunity to give his characters more dimension. When Tracy comes upon Paul at a table, gathering signatures for his nominating petition, she responds with cold fury, but she also scrawls her name on his sheet–a complex, defiant, irreducible gesture. And when she glimpses defeat, her pain is truly heartbreaking. She curls herself up in her mother’s lap and weeps with the agony of the empty. That’s what makes Election so much more insightful than Primary Colors: Tracy isn’t fatted and self-satisfied like Nichols’ version of Clinton. She’s insatiable because the hunger to succeed is what formed her. She has no self to deform.

I’ll try not to eviscerate the laughably dour eXistenZ, a virtual-reality guessing game of a thriller in which David Cronenberg, evidently licking his wounds over the calamitous receptions of Crash (1996), M. Butterfly (1993), and Naked Lunch (1991), goes back to the terrain he once profitably mined in Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983). Cronenberg’s early movies were somber but had horrific metaphors that ate into the mind, and he showed signs in The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers (1988) of actually developing a sense of humor to complement his paranoid-gynecologist’s vision. But eXistenZ is a return to the lugubrious. It’s named for a virtual-reality game that the characters play with “biopods”–living disk drives that plug into vaginal holes at the base of people’s spines. (The only time Cronenberg seems to be having fun in the film is when he’s exploring these squishy openings.) As the game’s ingenious designer, hunted by militant “realists” who want to stamp out virtual reality, Jennifer Jason Leigh is just the kind of drudge heroine that Cronenberg doesn’t need. Trying to underact these days, she still can’t walk across a room without looking self-conscious, and the rest of the performances (by Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Eccleston, and Don McKellar) are so terrible that it’s hard to know whether Cronenberg wants to signal that much of what we’re seeing isn’t “real” or he has just forgotten how to write for hemoglobular flesh vessels–i.e., human beings.