Film: Leave the Kids at Home

The French, as usual, got it wrong: The more things change, the worse they get. As far back as 1974, the famously dyspeptic John Simon, who revels in cursing the darkness, was pointing out that American movies “do not (cannot? dare not?) cope with serious, contemporary, middle-class, adult problems ….What is virtually nonexistent is serious filmmaking about the urban bourgeoisie and its ordinary problems of existence and co-existence—not something about beautiful young women dying of mysterious diseases, to say nothing of demonically possessed teenagers.”

The only thing missing from Simon’s pithy indictment was the reason why. Today, the answer is plain to see: Even more so than a quarter-century ago, American movies, like Trix, are for kids. The business of Hollywood is business, and since teenagers go to the movies far more often than their parents, they are the audience for whom those movies are made. Grownups stay home and watch workplace sitcoms; teenagers go to the mall and watch films in which none of the characters is married or has a real job. That is the world they know, and they expect to see it on the screen.

How, then, to make a Hollywood movie for adults? One way is by stealth. The stars of Alexander Payne’s Election are Reese Witherspoon, the demure young virgin of Cruel Intentions, and Matthew Broderick, best remembered as the adolescent lead in such Reagan-era juvenilia as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Wargames; the trailer presents the film as a light-hearted confection about a high-school election, and teenagers, predictably enough, have been jumping at the bait, along with an alarmingly large number of easily gulled critics. The New York Times, for example, pronounced Election suitable for “ages 13 and up” in its “Taking the Children” column: “Older children will want to see the movie, which casts a sharp satirical eye at student and adult alike It is high school, after all.” Don’t believe a word of it. Though Election is about children, it is not for them. Stripped of its teen-flick camouflage, Payne’s second movie is a deadly serious, joltingly frank indictment of the spiritual emptiness of middle-class life, and to let an innocent child see it would be as misguided as encouraging him to watch the blood- drenched opening scene of Saving Private Ryan in order to teach him that World War II was no picnic.

Satire, of course, is a not-so-surprisingly rare commodity in Hollywood, which prefers a simulacrum that pretends to poke fun at sacred cows but in the end always directs its most unfriendly fire at politically correct targets. Warren Beatty’s Bulworth and Buck Henry’s Wag the Dog are comfy cases in point: The first was lame, the second clever, but both were smug and self-righteous at heart (Bulworth more obviously so), and both received rave reviews from establishment critics, the worst of all possible signs. But even though its implicit values are more or less liberal, Election is a vastly different kettle of stinking fish, for Payne and Jim Taylor, who co-authored the screenplay, take great pains to see that the lash of their scorn rains with identical fervor upon the superficially just and the seemingly unjust.

Foremost among the latter is Tracy Flick (Witherspoon), a relentlessly cheerful junior who wears cute little twin sets, has dimples of pig iron, and a will to power that would have bedazzled Nietzsche— her bedroom is a schizophrenic blend of girlish bedclothes and you-can-do-it motivational posters—and is determined to be elected student- body president or kill trying. Horrified by the fact that this bundle of ambition is running unopposed, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who teaches civics, current events, and American history at George Washington Carver High School and is in charge of the election, persuades Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), a thick-headed but good-hearted jock who is the most popular boy on campus, to run against her. When it looks as though Tracy is going to win by just two votes (Paul having thought it wrong to vote for himself), McAllister decides to cook the election by tampering with the ballot box, an act of hubris that brings the sword of nemesis down on his neck with terrible swiftness.

No one in Election is immune from the operation of the law of unintended consequences. It turns out, for instance, that the prim and proper Tracy has had a torrid affair with her geometry teacher, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), who was so besotted with her pubescent charms that he sent her an injudiciously worded love note, which led to his dismissal and divorce; McAllister is also sexually attracted to Tracy, but instead sleeps with Novotny’s ex-wife, who promptly confesses their sins to Mrs. McAllister. The script of Election is full of similarly tangled skeins of cause and effect, giving it the air of a French bedroom farce—though, as is invariably the case in all the best farces, the modest amount of fornication that actually takes place is wildly disproportionate to the havoc it wreaks.

Neither are any of the characters quite as good, or bad, as they seem. Indeed, Tracy Flick is almost Trollopian in her complexity. Yes, she’ll do anything to beat Paul—but it turns out that her ambition is fueled by envy (Paul is rich and popular, while Tracy comes from a single- parent family, has no friends, and rides the bus to school). Yes, she is odious—but her mother is even worse. Yes, she went to bed with Mr. Novotny—but he seduced her, and she had genuine romantic feelings for him (Tracy is no Lolita Haze).

As for poor Jim McAllister, a second viewing of Election leaves little doubt that it is he, not Tracy, who is the villain of the piece. “Mr. M,” as his adoring students call him, appears at first glance to be the ideal high-school teacher: committed, compassionate, and morally upright. But one of the movie’s running jokes centers on his ineffectual attempts to teach his students the difference between morals and ethics, and the more time we spend with Mr. M, the more we begin to question the clarity of his own moral vision. He speaks in the blandest of Civics 101 bromides, but slips furtively down to the basement in the middle of the night to look at pornographic videos he has stashed away in a trunk; he glibly warns Dave Novotny of the dangers of “crossing the line” with Tracy, but covets Dave’s wife.

Significantly, it is after coupling with Linda Novotny on the floor of her living room that McAllister, emboldened by lust, determines to throw the election to Paul. As this scene makes clear, lust is here being portrayed as a “temptation” in the older, biblical sense of the word: McAllister and Novotny fail the trial of sexual temptation because their understanding of the values they teach is hollow. (It is no coincidence that McAllister is incapable of expressing himself other than in cliches.) And Tracy’s lust for power borders on the demonic, with Witherspoon’s expressive face serving as a perfectly transparent index of her ambition-possessed soul.

What makes this high drama funny is the fact that it is taking place not in a Renaissance court or a Wall Street board room but a Mid-western high school. Election was shot on location in Omaha, Nebraska, the place where Alexander Payne grew up, and with the help of Jane Ann Stewart, the production designer, he has done a masterly job of capturing the unglamorous look of ordinary sub-urban life, right down to the tiniest details. (McAllister, for example, arranges an assignation with Linda at the American Family Inn—whose sign reads “WELCOME SEED DEALERS”—having brought along a bottle of champagne and a box of Russell Stover chocolates.) Every part is cast no less impeccably, just as Rolfe Kent’s tango-flavored score underlines each sardonic twist in the script with sinister delicacy.

This, then, is a film that gets the small things right, as well as one thing that is both big and indispensable. While Payne pities both Tracy Flick and Jim McAllister—if he didn’t, Election would have failed to rise above the level of mere nastiness —he never makes the mistake of sympathizing with them. Therein lies the thoroughly adult moral of the most thoroughly adult satire to come out of Hollywood since A Shock to the System: To understand all is not to forgive all.

Terry Teachout


Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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