“Dear Lord Jesus, I do not often speak with you and ask for things,” Tracy begins, “but now I really must insist that you help me win the election tomorrow, because I deserve it and Paul Metzler doesn’t, as you well know. I realize that it was your divine hand that disqualified Tammy Metzler and now I’m asking that you go that one last mile and make sure to put me in office where I belong, so that I may carry out your will on Earth as it is in Heaven.” It would be difficult to pack more warped superiority into such a short prayer. Tracy chalks up her jealous destruction of Paul’s posters to an act of God, while suggesting she’s poised to act as an agent of Jesus Christ, but the kicker is the phrase “I must insist.” Talk about condescending. In actuality, Tracy’s prayer is based around the idea that Jesus is an agent who must do her will.
The writing in that scene and the illustration of character it provides are apt examples of Payne’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker. On that note, Election might be his strongest film, and Tracy is certainly one of his greatest characters. Reese Witherspoon is fantastic, evoking Tracy’s essence through her crisp annunciation, her forceful delivery, her almost too perfect posture, her pursed lips and her flared nostrils. It’s a scathing portrayal but a sympathetic one, too, which is a Payne hallmark. Because as obnoxious as Tracy is, and as much as we might agree with McAllister that she needs to be knocked off her high horse, there’s no question that she works hard for what she wants—making buttons, posters and cupcakes, getting up early to set up her station to get enough signatures to be on the ballot in the first place, and so on. And what we realize long before Tracy does is that she’s a prisoner of her own ambition. She doesn’t really have friends, so she finds nurturing only through success. That’s why it’s hard not to feel warm inside when Tracy first learns she has won the election and jumps around with the giddiness of a young girl and with the awkwardness of a young woman who was always in such a hurry to grow up that she missed out on most bouncy young girl moments. It’s a bittersweet moment, and Payne excels at creating those.
EH: I agree that Election is Payne’s best film, and the obvious tenderness and sadness that the director feels for Tracy, mingled with satirical contempt for her actions, is what saves the film and prevents it from being simply a mean-spirited portrayal of vile people. The glimpses we get behind Tracy’s crisp, efficient facade suggest that she’s actually a pretty sad person, even if she’s too busy and determined to quite realize it herself. The few appearances by her mother provide a pretty obvious source for Tracy’s dysfunctions, for one thing; when Tracy thinks that she’s lost the election and is absolutely distraught, her mother “comforts” her by wondering if her posters weren’t good enough. Later, even victory can’t extinguish the sadness and emptiness in Tracy. Her triumph is mingled with a realization that being class president doesn’t make her any less lonely. Her loneliness casts her affair with a married teacher in a very different light from the way McAllister sees her as a seductress and a homewrecker; when Tracy thinks back on that affair, she says that she misses their talks most of all. Tracy, isolated at school by her fierce drive to be the best, was easy prey for an older authority figure who could appeal to her ego and leverage her inability to communicate with people her own age. Her internal monologues towards the end of the film, in which she laments that no one wants to sign her yearbook and then complains that she hasn’t found any kindred spirits in college like she thought she would, are heartbreaking. Tracy is the opposite of self-aware, and she doesn’t realize how her focused, monomaniacal behavior pushes people away, so she simply can’t understand why she’s a pariah while someone like Paul, despite losing the election, continues to be effortlessly popular and broadly well-liked.
Paul himself is a pretty interesting character, too. He’s a jock stereotype in a whole lot of ways, and Payne ekes a lot of humor out of Paul’s stupidity and lunkhead obliviousness. His complete lack of understanding of the dynamic between his sister and his new girlfriend Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia)—who goes out with him mainly to drive home to Tammy that their lesbian dalliance is over—provides a rich vein of brutally funny humor. But Payne also defies and subverts the jock cliches because Paul, as dull as he is, isn’t a jerk or a bully. He actually deserves his popularity because he’s earnest and good-natured and friendly and, when you get down to it, a pretty decent guy. His prayers during the montage you mentioned couldn’t be more different from Tracy’s: where she aggressively demands that God fulfill her will, Paul leaves the election results in God’s hands, not asking anything for himself, instead simply requesting help for his troubled sister. This is a movie about ethics and the ignorance of ethics, and the character of Paul suggests that some people stumble unknowingly into the basic moral decency that eludes the intelligent, self-conscious McAllister. The position of the film is, perhaps, that ethics can’t really be taught, that doing the right thing goes far beyond religion or civics. McAllister, as much as he understands about ethics in theory, doesn’t get it at all in practice.
JB: That’s exactly right. While McAllister tries to look beyond the obvious, immediate wrongness of his actions to find some deeper truth that will justify his meddling, Paul goes with his gut. The election is decided in Tracy’s favor because Paul refuses to vote for himself. Tracy has worked hard, and Paul finds her deserving, and when faced with the opportunity to vote for himself, Paul finds that he can’t. He’s not obeying any understood code of ethics. He’s not really even obeying his morals. He’s just doing what feels right.
My favorite scene with Paul, and perhaps even my favorite moment in the entire movie, is the one in which the three candidates deliver their speeches to the student body crowded into the gymnasium. The first to speak is Tracy, who serves up rhetoric worthy of a United States presidential campaign, the camera capturing her in the foreground with an American flag hanging from the rafters behind her. Then comes Paul, the injured star quarterback, who is so obviously loved and yet is so out of his element. He nervously approaches the microphone, takes a folded piece of notebook paper out of his pocket and then reads his speech—featuring all the earmarks of the typical high school essay—as if it is entirely without punctuation, pausing only when he needs to take a breath. In another film, Paul’s tunnel vision on those written words would be evidence of insincerity, but here it’s the opposite. Paul isn’t the smartest guy, but it’s obvious that what he’s written is from the heart, and that this leadership role outside of sports is terrifying for him. When Paul completes his speech his huge smile of accomplishment makes me want to do what the students don’t: erupt in applause.
It’s the painful yet observant honesty of scenes like these that make me feel that the condescension charge often applied to Payne is inaccurate more often than not. While there’s some comedic exaggeration to those speeches, no doubt, there’s a hell of a lot of real-world truth to them, too. (The election speeches at my high school certainly had a lot more in common with what’s portrayed here than with, say, the polish of the big song-and-dance number at the high school rally in last year’s charming Easy A.) What Payne does in his films, in scenes like that, but even more so with the general mise-en-scène, shaped here by everything from McAllister’s humble blue car with the awkward self-locking seatbelts to the terrible blue furniture in the faculty workroom, is show us a world that more closely resembles the one we live in. Mainstream Hollywood films (and Payne teeters on the edge of mainstream) have a terrible habit of making everything look like, well, a movie: the lighting is always bright and even, the colors sharp, the people trim and beautiful, the cars new and clean, the restaurants cozy and welcoming, and so on. Payne defies that, and because we’ve become so desensitized to the way Hollywood gives everything a Blu-ray friendly glow, it seems radical.
I don’t mean to imply that Payne is a truth-teller; that label doesn’t reflect the tone of his films, which can be completely cartoonish. Rather, Payne’s method is showing us very real places that all of us recognize from experience in exactly the way that we experience them in the real world. Thus, almost every shot at Carver High School seems to emphasize the cinder block walls, and the school offices have that distinct glow that you get in a windowless room with florescent lights, and the restaurant where McAllister runs into Paul looks like so many breakfast-anytime eateries with cheap upholstery and fake plants. I understand why people see these distinctly non-Hollywood images and assume that Payne must be taking it out on the lower class. But what I think is happening is that Payne is being punished for the excellence with which he establishes a sense of place, and his willingness to look at the world we live in as it exists, not as Hollywood reinterprets it to make it seem like even the average among us are movie stars.
EH: I think that’s fair. As cartoonish as Election and Citizen Ruth are, there’s definitely a sense of prosaic reality in those films that points the way forward to the less exaggerated, more observational aesthetic of Payne’s subsequent films. In the concrete details of the mise-en-scène, in the decorations and objects that populate Payne’s world, he’s always had a realist’s eye for arranging artifacts of the real world. It’s no coincidence, after all, that his first three features are all set in Omaha, Nebraska, where Payne actually grew up. These films feel lived-in. But what makes Election in particular work so well, in my opinion, is that Payne here finds a near-perfect balance between the over-the-top satirical bile of Citizen Ruth and the more restrained (and, I’d argue, often maudlin) tone of his later films. Payne’s films always have the mundane mise-en-scène nailed, and they always have at least a tinge of the mocking satire, but I don’t think any of the other films he’s made have hit this sweet spot quite like Election does. I was a little nervous about revisiting this film for this conversation, considering my mixed feelings about Payne’s other films, but I’m happy to find that it actually holds up really well. And, a few scenes aside—the unflattering freeze frames of Tracy early on come to mind—I think it does a good job of avoiding the condescending, mean-spirited tone that I too often detect in the rest of Payne’s work.
It helps that whatever else it is, Election is an almost irresistibly funny movie. It’s funny in its broad strokes, like the crude humor in McAllister’s description of Tracy’s affair with a married teacher. It’s even funnier in its subtle touches, like the way that McAllister describes democracy as a choice between apples and oranges, drawing the two fruits as identical circles on a blackboard, providing both an unhelpful visual aid and a clever joke about the limits of democratic choice. It’s funny in ways that are awkwardly real and heartbreaking, like when Tammy gives Lisa a love note that reads, “If you died right now, I would throw myself under one of my dad’s cement trucks so I could be poured into your tomb.” It’s funny just to listen to the characters chatter away in voiceover, each of them with their own distinctive and quirky dictions.
I’m stressing this so much because Election is really the last Payne movie that can comfortably be called an outright comedy. Not that his subsequent films aren’t sometimes humorous. Nor does he abandon the satirical edge that dominates his first two features. But it’s pretty clear that after Election Payne shifted the elements of his style around and, starting with About Schmidt, allowed the bitterness and melancholy that had always been present in his films to really come to the surface. Based on About Schmidt and the other two films Payne has made since then, I’m not sure the change has really been for the best.
JB: About Schmidt is Payne’s weakest film. It’s about a man struggling to deal with his retirement who then suffers the death of his wife and the marriage of his daughter to a “nincompoop” he thinks unworthy of her. The film is capably acted, from Jack Nicholson’s melancholy Warren Schmidt to Dermot Mulroney’s endearingly nincompoopish Randall, but as a whole the movie is as dynamic as the Nebraska horizon, which is to say it isn’t dynamic at all. In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Payne suggested half jokingly that the only movie he’s made that isn’t too long is his short in Paris, Je T’Aime, and while it’s true that all of Payne’s films seem a bit overstuffed, none are more clumsily paced than About Schmidt, which at 125 minutes is either 90 minutes too long or 200 minutes too short.
In terms of both theme and narrative, About Schmidt is like a junkyard dog chained to a pole, forever roaming in the same familiar circle. I don’t mean to apply Syd Fieldesque rules to this film, demanding that the central dramatic conflict be defined within the first 15 minutes, launching the plot into its arc, but it’s worth pointing out that Warren doesn’t take any action in his life until 45 minutes into the film, when in short succession he goes to the grocery store for the first time since his wife’s death, confronts his wife’s former lover and gets into the RV and heads off to Colorado to see his daughter with the intent to talk her out of getting married. Prior to that, About Schmidt has an inertness that rivals its opening scene, which finds Warren on his last day at the office, sitting in his chair with all his work files in boxes and nothing to do, staring up at the clock, waiting for it to strike 5 pm so that he can go home and start the life of retirement that he clearly hasn’t been yearning for. I respect that in these early scenes Payne is evoking Warren’s listlessness, but the first 45 minutes are little more than a redundant prologue, with scene after scene establishing a depression and lack of purpose that are made immediately apparent within the first 10 minutes.
After all this wheel spinning, when Warren finally hits the road, you’d expect him to be challenged by new people, places and experiences, and to learn from them—a common narrative arc—but while Warren does meet new people and endure new experiences, what he learns is minimal. The film’s conclusion is downright odd: Warren delivers a toast at his daughter’s wedding that’s entirely insincere except in its intent to make his daughter happy, then he spells out the insincerity of his toast via voiceover narration (as if it wasn’t obvious already) in which he concludes, self-pityingly but accurately, that he hasn’t made much of a mark on the world, or even on his family. On the one hand, I respect the hell out of Payne for resisting the Hollywood trend in which a character that has been carefully established as emotionally corrupt is suddenly presented as sincere in order to create a false happy ending. But on the other hand About Schmidt’s conclusion seems to falsely imply emotional catharsis just the same. I can’t tell if Payne is punishing Warren or celebrating him.
EH: Yeah, it’s a weirdly unsatisfying movie. In theory, I love the idea of a film that, as you say, defies Hollywood conventions to focus on a curmudgeonly character who, for once, doesn’t change and doesn’t learn anything on his voyage of self-discovery. In practice, I just don’t think it works at all. And it doesn’t work because Payne doesn’t seem to know quite how he feels about Warren, or how he wants us to feel. Warren is a very sad character, and I’d feel nothing but sympathy for him if he wasn’t also such a miserable bastard. Warren’s retirement dinner, towards the beginning of the film, suggests that Warren has lived for his job and not much else: he’s terrified of retiring because working is all he’s ever known, and he despises the younger men who are replacing him. At the dinner, Payne mockingly cuts from a photo of a cow, its eye turned towards the camera in terror and confusion, to a posed photo of Warren, staring glossy-eyed into the camera, his terror a little better disguised but no less present. Later in the film, while driving around the country in his RV, Warren passes a trailer carrying cows and comes face to face with one of them, staring it down before continuing his pointless, un-illuminating odyssey. It’s as though Payne is implying that Warren is just a big dumb animal, mechanically going through the motions of life, plodding stupidly towards death without resisting, like a cow headed to the slaughterhouse.
Indeed, Payne often seems to be ridiculing Warren for his ignorance and obliviousness, particularly in the letters that Warren writes to an African boy named Ndugu, who he has “fostered” through one of those ubiquitous TV commercials showing heartstring-tugging pictures of starving African children. Warren’s letters to Ndugu are an outlet for all of the things that the normally repressed Warren can’t or doesn’t say aloud, and they also provide a justification for the film’s voiceover, on which Warren reads from these letters. His first letter to Ndugu starts out innocuously enough, but it soon becomes a tirade, a torrent of negativity about Warren’s wife, his daughter’s “not up to snuff” fiancé, his forced retirement and the man who’s replacing him at work. Warren has obviously been suppressing these feelings for a long time, and this letter, however inappropriate the venue, provides an opportunity for him to let it all come pouring out at last. Payne is presenting a portrait of a deeply unhappy man, but he also seems to find Warren a pathetically comical figure, a clown who doesn’t know he is one. The most telling details in that respect are the shot of Warren sitting down to pee—an emasculating act that shows just how cowed he is by his wife’s dominance of him—and the way he closes the letter by telling Ndugu to “go cash that check and get something to eat.”
Several times, Warren’s letters suggest that he thinks the African boy is directly getting these checks and depositing them into his bank account or something. Payne is rather savagely mocking Warren’s distinctly American class blindness, his inability to comprehend what it means to live in real poverty, to really feel starvation. Warren seems to think that Ndugu’s situation is just a little worse than his own, and he fills his letters to the boy with all his petty complaints about his middle class misery. And yet, the ending seems to suggest that Warren’s charity towards Ndugu is his saving grace and the source of the limited sense of uplift that rather suddenly infuses the otherwise downbeat conclusion. After the scene you mention at the wedding, when Warren returns home and the voiceover reiterates how worthless he feels, Warren receives a letter from a missionary who has been working with Ndugu. This letter tells him how much his help has meant to Ndugu and tells him that the boy—who can’t read and thus hasn’t read Warren’s rants, at least not directly—hopes that Warren is happy. Warren sobs hysterically, and the movie ends. It’s a puzzling ending, because as you say, what are we supposed to feel here? It’s not complex or ambiguous so much as muddled. Payne has spent much of the movie portraying Warren as stubborn, clueless, pathetic, nasty and close-minded. So what does Warren feel as he cries during that final shot? Regret? Depression? Redemption? Payne seems to want to have it both ways, delivering a conclusion that could be read as either a continuation of Warren’s unceasing misery and suffering, or a belated Hollywood-style moment of redemption as the character realizes that he has had a positive impact on somebody, at least.
JB: That’s exactly how I feel. This movie leaves too many half-developed themes dangling. At first it seems like Warren will grapple with feelings of irrelevance after retirement. Then it seems like Warren will struggle with being a stranger to his own wife. Then it seems as if Warren will audit his life and find purpose. But none of that really happens. Not in any emotionally convincing way, at least.
The way that Payne endears us to Warren isn’t through any developments in his character. It’s by surrounding him with loonies, such as Kathy Bates’ Roberta, a hippie-type and sexual obsessive. Roberta’s two marriages broke up, she says, because she wasn’t sexually satisfied. That’s why she’s confident that Russell’s marriage to Warren’s daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) will work, because their sexual chemistry is “positively white hot.” Roberta also announces that she had her first orgasm at 6 and breast-fed her son until he was almost 5, and when it comes time to share a hot tub with Warren, she of course goes in naked. Her antics, and those of her extended family, distract us from all of Warren’s problems, because over the second half of the film Warren becomes a captive audience, raising an eyebrow here and grimacing there in perfunctory reverse shots but revealing very little.