Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi "Election"

By Angie Drobnic

MAY 17, 1999:  Has Ferris Bueller grown up only to become a hapless high school civics teacher? No way. But Matthew Broderick, the actor who so memorably played the coolest kid in school in John Hughes' 1986 teen flick, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, stars in a new film that also skewers high school so effectively that maturing Gen X-ers will have to wonder how the times have changed.

Jim McAllister, the teacher played by Broderick, sees the writing on the wall for this year's election of student council president: Tracy Flick, a paragon of blonde ambition, is running unopposed, locking in her fellow students' support with chewing gum and the snappy slogan, "Pick Flick!" Something about Tracy's zealous drive bothers McCallister--maybe it's just the affair she had with his married best friend--and he decides to intervene.

The instrument of McAllister's machinations is Paul Metzler, the school jock. Out of commission for football because of a busted knee, Paul innocently listens to McAllister's urgings to run and enters the race with his goofy grin and low-watt brain power. Things are going right according to McAllister's plans until Paul's sister, an anti-establishment lesbian, enters the race with a few secret--and funny--plans of her own.

The movie uses the device of the internal monologue, so that as the characters go about their business, the audience hears what they're thinking and feeling. Reese Witherspoon's Tracy wheedles every trick in the book to win, and for her, it's not even about gaining power. As Tracy sits in her room at her desk, working the machine that cranks out her "Pick Flick!" buttons, she's a picture of pure adolescent will. Winning will make her the person she's meant to be--she thinks it's simply fate. As much as Ferris Bueller just wanted to have fun, Tracy wants to win the election, and she'll go to the same lengths Ferris did to achieve her goal. Broderick's McAllister, meanwhile, gets so mired in his election plotting that he loses his healthy sense of perspective that found Tracy to be just too much in the first place. Soon, his own life starts to spin slowly out of control.

Election is director and co-writer Alexander Payne's second film; his first was the even darker Citizen Ruth. While Citizen Ruth didn't get much attention, the sharp satire recounted how a spraypaint-inhaling loser gets pregnant and caught between rabid pro-lifers and rabid pro-choicers. Election has a lot of the same feel; it makes you laugh as it makes you just a little uncomfortable. It's not your typical moralizing movie. It's mean and kind at the same time. Each character takes his or her knocks for their own foolish actions. Such unorthodoxy is probably why critics call Payne a latter-day Preston Sturges. ... Don't worry, I had to look it up, too: Sturges made movies in the 1930s, '40s and '50s like Hail the Conquering Hero and The Palm Beach Story, which deflated the collective American middle-class ego with a witty prick. Election's moral complexity plays better than the aren't-all-these-people-a-bunch-of-losers attitude that sometimes came across in Citizen Ruth.

Reese Witherspoon, so interesting as the bad girl in the recent Pleasantville, makes Tracy Flick her own cyclone of a character in one tiny, petulant package. Broderick, meanwhile, captures the boredom and yearning of a man who should but doesn't question his own motivations for entering the political fray. In the movie's final scene, when Tracy and McAllister meet up again years later, the man who was once the unquestionably and unquestioning cool Ferris shows us the perils of sanctimony. Before we criticize the more ambitious and arrogant, we have to look at our moral status to see if we can still stand our ground.


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