After a couple of major misfires ("Dead Man on Campus", "200 Cigarettes"), MTV Films goes to the head of the class with "Election", a sharp, funny, bracingly on-the-money high school satire.
A winning sophomore effort from "Citizen Ruth" director Alexander Payne, boasting a deliciously driven performance by ever-dependable Reese Witherspoon
as a take-no-prisoners overachiever, this subversive suburban send-up is easily the best among the recent spate of teen screen candidates.
Given the glut of youth-oriented product, strong reviews and Witherspoon's solid fan base may not ensure a landslide victory, but enthusiastic word-of-mouth should translate into respectable boxoffice tallies.
Adapted by Payne and "Citizen Ruth" collaborator Jim Taylor from a Tom Perrotta
novel, the picture is set against the backdrop of a heated high school election.
Having lent her indomitable spirit to nearly every committee and club at George Washington Carver
High, scarily ambitious Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) has her sights set on the student government presidency.
A one-person Up With People, Tracy's latest quest appears to be a cakewalk -- that is, until mild-mannered teacher Jim McAllister
(Matthew Broderick, in one of his best film roles in years) decides to intervene.
It seems Tracy, whose hushed-up affair with fellow teacher Mr. Novotny (Mark Harelik
) effectively ended his academic career and marriage, is beginning to make similar advances in Mr. McAllister's direction. If elected, she'll be working closely with him in his capacity as student government adviser. Deciding to take action, McAllister persuades sidelined football hero Paul Metzler (Chris Klein
), a bit of a dim bulb with a likable, "gosh, gee whiz" personality, to run against her.
Soon, a third hat is thrown into the ring when Paul starts going with the former crush of his vengeance-seeking, rebellious lesbian sister Tammy (delightful newcomer Jessica Campbell).
Meanwhile, McAllister seems to be spending more time doing chores for lonely Mrs. Novotny (Delaney Driscoll
) than he is with his overlooked wife (Molly Hagan).
Payne handles the swirling comic activity with deft aplomb, playfully integrating voice-overs, sustained freeze frames and cleverly chosen musical cues to bitingly original effect. While the progressively twisted pace loses some of its adrenaline toward the end -- 10 minutes less could have made a noticeable difference -- it's a minor quibble.
With the unspoken but obvious joke of having Broderick return to high school as a meek teacher some 13 years after wreaking havoc as Ferris Bueller, only to meet his match in bad-girl-in-goody-goody-clothing Witherspoon, "Election" knows how to pick its sparring partners.
Top vote-getters also include James Glennon
's assured camera work, which manages to achieve vivid results despite the high school corridor fluorescent lighting; Jane Ann Stewart
's disturbingly familiar production design; and costume designer Wendy Chuck
's knack for using a couple of short-sleeved shirts and ties to illustrate the extent of the average teacher's accessorizing skills.
An MTV Films production
in association with Bona Fide Prods.
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriters: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Based on the novel by: Tom Perrotta
Producers: David Gale, Keith Samples
, Albert Berger
, Ron Yerxa
Executive producer: Van Toffler
Director of photography: James Glennon
Production designer: Jane Ann Stewart
Editor: Kevin Tent
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Music: Rolfe Kent
Music supervisor: Dondi Bastone
Casting: Lisa Beach
Jim McAllister: Matthew Broderick
Tracy Flick: Reese Witherspoon
Paul Metzler: Chris Klein
Tammy Metzler: Jessica Campbell
Dave Novotny: Mark Harelik
Diane McAllister: Molly Hagan
Linda Novotny: Delaney Driscoll
Barbara Flick: Colleen Camp
Running time -- 104 minutes
MPAA rating: R