Film Reviews

High School Unhinged

The latest release from MTV Films, Paramount Pictures' bouncing baby, is set in a high school and has been inoculated with the usual doses of teenage angst, teenage wit, and teenage lust. Here's the surprise: It declines to get down on hands and knees to woo Generation Y to the multiplex. Instead, Alexander Payne's Election, which is adapted from Tom Perrotta's splendid comic novel of the same name, casts its net wider, trying to snare the My-God-can-I really-be-35-already? set as well as students of intermediate algebra.

The result is a lot headier than Beavis and Butt-head Do America, Dead Man on Campus, or 200 Cigarettes, some earlier titles in the teen-oriented MTV library. In fact the fresh charge of satire and the surreal spin director Payne lays on Perrotta's gem of a book represent improvements: It's a comedy with smarts that might appeal equally to adolescents and their parents.

It seems like only yesterday that Matthew Broderick was cutting class in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He gets the grown-up part here -- or what passes for the grown-up part. He is one Jim McAllister, a history and current-events teacher at a suburban Omaha high school who takes his work, his moral authority, and himself pretty seriously. He's an idealist who says he believes in the greater good, so he has no qualms about sabotaging a student council election. The sole candidate for president, after all, is an insufferable teen striver named Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), who just happens to be the same ruthless vixen who ruined the career of Jim's best friend, a horny geometry teacher named Dave Novotny. At Jim's urging a popular but none-too-bright football player, Paul Metzler (newcomer Chris Klein), suddenly enters the race, and the comic bloodletting begins.

If Perrotta's book and Payne's movie went only this far, they would have something to say about the traumas of high school life and the uses of petty power. Onscreen we would still have the twin pleasures of Broderick's dead-on performance as a self-righteous semidork wearing Kmart chinos and spouting off about the distinction between ethics and morality, and Witherspoon's brilliant turn as a snippy careerist whose ambition seems to be ambition itself. But Payne is happy to push the envelope, just as he did in Citizen Ruth, his satire about a low-rent slattern caught up in the abortion debate. With startling ease Election graduates from the prom-night obsessions of most teen movies to a wry examination of hypocrisy and desire at any age.

Before you know it, you've visited the basement where Jim hides his collection of pornographic videos. You've learned that Paul Metzler's younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) yearns desperately for a classmate named Lisa Flanagan (Frankie Ingrassia). You see that single-minded Tracy, every blond hair in place, is driven by a backstage mother. You find that the long-married Jim, Professor Eat Your Peas in public, is not above putting the moves on his fallen best friend's toothy ex-wife, Linda (Delaney Driscoll). You learn that the school principal (Phil Reeves) is a birdbrain.

Perrotta's novel, which was set in suburban New Jersey, travels easily to middle-American Omaha, Payne's hometown. Obviously comfortable in his surroundings (he also shot Citizen Ruth there), the director leavens his satire with sympathy. The beautifully drawn characters we encounter here are not mere objects of scorn, but human beings with blood running through their veins; they don't represent poses, they illuminate ambiguity. For every belly laugh we get as the foolish Jim scurries to organize a tryst with Linda Novotny at a local motel, we get an equally powerful jolt of pathos from the sheer desperation of his act. We laugh out loud at the goofy campaign speeches of the kids running for office (three of them now, including Paul's resentful sister Tammy), but we also feel the sting of adolescence gone awry.

Said another way, there's more than meets the eye and ear in Election -- a full-grown microcosm, in fact. Perrotta, a Yale grad who teaches creative writing at Harvard, says he was spurred to write his satire by two events: the 1992 presidential campaigns, in which Ross Perot became the surreal wild card, and the case of a Southern high school principal who secretly invalidated a prom-queen election because the winner was pregnant. As an epigraph for his novel, Perrotta quoted William Trevor: "The world is the school gone mad."

For Jim and Paul, Tracy, and Tammy, school must seem like the world gone mad. This irreverent, sharply observant comedy sweeps us into the maelstrom, too. Amid the glut of teen movies rolling out of the studios every week, Election deserves special attention.

Directed by Alexander Payne. Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, from a novel by Tom Perrotta. Starring Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Phil Reeves, Frankie Ingrassia, Delaney Driscoll, and Jessica Campbell.