Up until recently, Alexander Payne’s Election, his 1999 dalliance with MTV Films, had settled in comfortably among the best American comedies of the post-New Hollywood era. In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, it might also rank among the same era’s finest American tragedies, at least in the sense of how little its crystal-clear parables have reflected any reasonable change in how this country’s sausage is made and, more importantly, unceremoniously uncased. Based on a Tom Peretta novel, Election was probably destined to bomb with its target audience the moment the cameras first started rolling in Payne’s native Omaha, Nebraska. Following the film’s box-office failure, a prominent Paramount executive wryly noted how it was maybe the best movie that the studio had put out in more than a decade, and that the studio had absolutely no interest in repeating that mistake.
Conceived in significant part as a reaction to the results of the 1992 presidential race, in which Ross Perot and his flow charts threw a wrench into the status quo, Election is on one level a merciless burlesque of the impossibility for America to move beyond two-party partisanship. But that’s truly its simplest level. Beyond that, in the microcosm of high school sociology, is one of the most devastating portraits of America’s pathological identification with exceptionalism, and how high the stakes can seem even within—especially within—the deepest recesses of flyover country. Even more so than Fargo, Election is the decade’s preeminent Midwestern farce. (Even those who regard Payne’s heartland-centered filmic output in this century as so much sour milk have to give him this one unqualified success.)
The perfection of casting Reese Witherspoon, whose kewpie-doll face has never fully concealed the fire within, as the indomitable overachiever Tracy Flick almost overshadows the efforts of everyone around her. Tracy is the archetypal title collector, a self-starter who, long before the confusion of adolescence ever had a chance to set in, had clearly been taught that the only thing that matters before college is the quest to get into college. (Tracy’s home life is writ in merciless shorthand glances of her business-suited, updo-wearing, envelope-licking working mother, played by Colleen Camp.)
While her laser-beam focus on her own future is a mismatch with her peer group, few students at Carver High School seem to have as much of a problem with Tracy as social studies teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick). Having watched his friend and fellow math teacher lose his job and livelihood after becoming romantically involved with Tracy, Mr. McAllister slides all too easily into a midlife bout of pragmatic machismo: He decides that Tracy has no right to run for student council president unopposed and recruits the football team’s dim but well-liked captain, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), to oppose her.
Mr. McAllister’s sublimated reactionary response to a born leader who’s also female is, complicatedly, one that the film itself doesn’t exactly reject. In his pitch to Paul, he reasons that he’s certainly the most popular student in his class. Klein’s brawny but clean good looks would soon make him a Buzzfeed quiz-worthy teen avatar for the Abercrombie & Fitch era, and his performance is one of total openness, making him even in this cynical context just about the only character you can’t dislike. (Certainly, few other actors could do justice to Paul’s voiceover prayer thanking God for granting him “good health, nice parents, a nice truck, and what I’m told is a large penis.”) Election, like Mr. McAllister, seems to believe he would be a more viable representative for his constituents than Tracy, who at no point is looking out for anyone’s interests other than her own. And though the bulk of the film is admittedly presented through Mr. McAllister’s ultimately bee-stung point of view, no fewer than four characters all have their say serving as varyingly reliable narrators.
As in all of the best allegories, Election is as expansive in function as it is tightly wound in form. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor work satirical filigrees into every corner, and unlike in some of Payne’s subsequent films, few of them are needlessly overemphasized. The rally-day speeches from the student council candidates include a platitudinous spiel from a wheelchair-bound student who’s running—unopposed, natch—for vice president, and who winds up promising “Even if I can’t really stand up for you, I will.” The ineffectual Principal Hendricks (Phil Reeves) solves problems in only the most bureaucratically laissez-faire fashion, only getting ruffled when Paul’s sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), promises to dismantle the student government system if she’s elected. Reeves stammering while calling her, behind closed doors, “that little bitch” says as much about the impotence of men’s response to the arrival of female authority as Mr. McAllister’s own plight.
Beyond that, Payne ups the stakes by inserting into his otherwise very teen-friendly visual syntax dangerously unglamorous and adult sexuality. Tracy’s illicit affair with her teacher cum mentor and Paul’s hot-tub trysts with his sister’s secret ex-girlfriend, Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia), aren’t terribly far removed from the desultory quarterback-cheerleader scenarios from Mr. McAllister’s glum VHS porn stash, tapes he’s reduced to screening late at night in order to keep his head in the game trying to get his wife, Diane (Molly Hagan), pregnant, especially when all she offers in the way of pillow talk is, “Fill me up.” And if there’s another MTV-affiliated entertainment that takes the time to show a middle-aged man preparing for an extramarital romp at a roadside motel room, crouching in the tub to tidy up his taint, I’m sure I haven’t seen it.
Election has had its day on Blu-ray already. But the Criterion Criterion, more and more, is investing into representing the vitality of American movies that were released following the advent of DVD technology. And thankfully so. Election has always looked awfully good on home video, but Criterion’s restored 4K transfer is downright flawless, with natural-looking color temperatures, and an attractive grain that shows nicely through some of the film’s old-school process shots and rear projections. Give some credit for the newness of the source material, but otherwise luxuriate in one of the cleanest visual presentations of the year from Criterion. Audio is practically up to the same standard, with more directional effects than may be the standard for the boutique label but less than your average recent-ish release. It’s not a reference disc, but in its own quieter way, also downright flawless.
The most prominent bonus feature is also one that’s been recycled. Alexander Payne’s commentary track from Election’s 2008 home-video issue is, in reliable fashion, at least six degrees more egg-headed than the film it’s commenting upon. Much time is spent on explaining the significance of circles from a metaphorical standpoint than delivering the behind-the-scenes perspective, or at least reacting like a normal human being might to the film’s genuine comedic high points. Still, for every strand that Payne doesn’t pick up on in his commentary track, there’s the making-of retrospective documentary from truTV to pick up the slack. With participation from nearly everyone else in the cast and crew, it’s a tonally appropriate victory lap for what’s unquestionably a zeitgeist-owning American classic. Rounding out the class reunion is Reese Witherspoon herself, looking back on the film in a too-brief new interview clip. She recognizes it as one of her signature roles, though, and that’s all that counts. (Payne die-hards will be grateful for the inclusion of his UCLA senior thesis film The Passion of Martin. Others maybe less so, but it’s fantastic of Criterion to offer it up as an option.) Finally and perhaps most true to Election’s place in the American lexicon, a collection of breathless local news reports about the making of the film. They’re brutal.
America is to this day hell-bent on holding Tracy Flick down. But she will have her revenge, so everyone else better hit the books with Criterion’s new edition of Election.