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Where do politicians come from?

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Alexander Payne

Written by Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta

With Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell

The hardest genre to love is black comedy, and Election is the prime specimen of the genre. It’s an equal-opportunity offender, skewering everybody with rapier-sharp wit, and taking no prisoners. This is a movie that is awfully easy to like: it’s hilarious, penetrating, visually interesting, featuring a complex and involving story, non-obvious subtext, and vivid, three-dimensional characters. It’s equally hard to love, with not a sympathetic person in the cast of characters, with the laughter being largely misanthropic, and with the larger implications of the story being glum and grim.

The plot -- as opposed to the story -- starts in a rather simple manner. The elections for the Student Body President are forthcoming at the Carver High School, and the only candidate so far is the determined and ambitious Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). Student adviser Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), goaded on by contrarian spirit (among many other conflicting feelings), decides to make the race a bit more exciting, and convinces a clueless football jock Paul (Chris Klein) to enter the race as well. This abruptly shifts the situation: Tracy grinds her teeth and intensifies her campaign efforts, another dark horse candidate declares her intentions to run, and McAllister is forced to deal with the situation which spins out of control as wildly as his own private life. His methods are not very successful, as they are not very honest.

What arises is the brilliant mixture of a sharp social satire, a character study, and a rather raunchy black comedy. Screenwriter/director Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth) creates a microcosm of political machinations, lies, intrigues, backbiting, blackmail, and even dirtier tricks. What’s utterly inspired and depressing is that all of his characters remain perfectly human, with not a single villain--or, for that matter, not a single hero--among them. As a result, all the jawdroppingly immoral things they do to each other remain firmly rooted in what they are -- largely, unhappy and lonely people, trying to force everybody else to accept and love them, even they need to cheat and lie in order to earn respect.

Payne’s other major achievement is how compulsively watchable Election remains for its entire running time, even though there’s not a single likable character. Well, Paul is rather sweet, but it’s simply because he’s not bright enough to be anything else, and his sister Tammy -- truly the most fascinating character of them all -- regrettably exits the movie about halfway through. But this is compensated by the endlessly inventive visual style (multiple unreliable narrators, hilarious freeze frames, intricate flashbacks, yearbook pictures coming to life, etc.). In this, Election reminds of another recent comedy set in a high school, Rushmore, with the major difference that its humor borders on savage, and its worldview is, ultimately, as pessimistic as Rushmore’s was life-affirming.

Election is, certainly, illuminating. Did you ever wonder where do politicians come from? You know, those stereotypically career-minded, rhetoric-spewing, immoral, dishonest, insanely driven people? Despite the popular belief, they are neither cloned in the lab, nor do they perpetuate their species by spawning. They are what Tracy Flick will be when she grows up, and Witherspoon (Pleasantville) gives a spot-on performance, perhaps the best acting job this year so far, in embodying that person that all of us have known in high school: ambitious, socially active, Voted Most Likely To Succeed, and with little or no real friends. It’s also nice to see Broderick acting against his usual nice-guy typecasting by playing a rather slimy creature.

So, thinking back about Election, I can’t really recall anything I didn’t like about it; still, I can hardly think of this movie with much affection. This is, most likely, because I find it to be eerily knowing and its misanthropic satire feels too true to be merely funny; it’s also spookily disturbing.