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The Best Movie You Never Saw: Election

Jul. 12, 2013by: Paul Shirey

Welcome to The Best Movie You Never Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be examining ELECTION from writer/director Alexander Payne.

THE STORY:

A high school teacher's personal life becomes complicated as he works with students during the school elections.

THE PLAYERS:

Writer/Director Alexander Payne (THE DESCENDANTS, SIDEWAYS) has a diverse cast, including Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Colleen Camp, Phil Reeves, Molly Hagen, and Jessica Campbell. It is also the film debut of Chris Klein. Payne wrote the script with regular collaborator Jim Taylor, which is based on the novel by author Tom Perrotta (LITTLE CHILDREN, The Leftovers).

THE HISTORY:

Author Tom Perrotta originally conceived of ELECTION as an allegorical tale about the 1992 Presidential election, as well as an incident at a high school where a pregnant girl won homecoming queen, only to have the ballots burned to make it seem that she didn’t. Payne optioned the book shortly after its publication and found support in MTV films, who were looking for some edgy teenage material to kickstart their venture. If only they really knew the kind of material they were covering.

After some casting shuffles, Payne secured Broderick and Witherspoon as his leads, while snagging Chris Klein during location scouting in Omaha, Nebraska, where the film was shot. Klein was a student at the time and left an impression on Payne (also from Omaha), who ultimately gave the young actor his first big break. Thora Birch (AMERICAN BEAUTY) was originally cast as Tammy Metzler (Klein’s sister in the film) but left early on, stating creative differences with the director. This prompted the hiring of Jessica Campbell in the role.

The film was shot on location in Omaha, utilizing an actual high school in the area. They filmed while classes were actually in session, which lends greatly to the atmosphere of the overall film.

ELECTION debuted on May 7, 1999 to a rather abysmal box office, making a total domestic cume of $14 million from a $25 million budget. Critics mostly loved the film, but nobody went to see it, primarily because it was marketed as something much lighter than it actually was. The trailer is so off the mark of what the film is that you have to wonder if the marketing team knew anything about the film or just saw a few scenes and had to make it work.

Since its debut, the film has gained solid cult notoriety and appears on many best of lists, but still remains a film largely unseen and misunderstood.

"The truth is, though, that Matthew Broderick was in a career lull at the time, Reese Witherspoon had never had a hit movie, and although the film was a critical success, it was box-office death. No one ever did an R-rated teen flick again." – Tom Perrotta

WHY IT’S GREAT:

I see ELECTION as one of those great movies that everyone knows they should see and always mean to “get to it,” but rarely do. I wish I had an actual count of the number of times I’ve made a reference to it only to be met with a blank stare, followed by “You’ve never seen ELECTION??” In fact, I think this bodes similarly for many of Alexander Payne’s movies, including ABOUT SCHMIDT, CITIZEN RUTH, and even the Oscar-winning SIDEWAYS. Payne is one of the smartest filmmakers working and puts together films of intricate, real-world oddities that are savagely good at making you feel uncomfortable in a great way.

ELECTION, like all of Payne’s films, has a unique set of characters, each with quirks, idioms, and attributes that make them stand out (and apart) from one another. Although the film is satirical to an extent, it’s no less engaging in terms of creating a world you have likely lived in. There’s no glamour or pizzazz. Payne’s style is all about painting a portrait of every day people and life, but within the confines of both the best and worst moments of their lives. It’s a beautiful show to watch his characters squirm and ELECTION has plenty of those moments.

“I liked it not because I read it and saw a satire, but because I read it and thought, look at these interesting people doing these really pathetic and hilarious things. (It was) just the human landscape. I mean, I don't really look at the film as being necessarily satirical. That's something other people have called it. I just see it as this human landscape.” – Alexander Payne

It’s a simple tale, really, that follows an obnoxious and ambitious girl named Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) as she runs for class president with fierce tenacity against her reluctant opposition, a good-guy jock named Paul Metzler (Klein), who is encouraged to run by Mr. McAllister (Broderick), a seemingly good-natured teacher who wants to see Tracy’s wide-eyed dreams of a landslide perfect election go down in flames.

Most people that have seen ELECTION tend to say that Witherspoon is the star and that it’s her best performance to date. I’d agree with half of that statement. It’s the only movie she’s ever been good in (and yes, that includes WALK THE LINE), but it’s not her movie. This movie belongs to Matthew Broderick and, like Witherspoon, it’s his best performance. Better than FERRIS BUELLER or GLORY you ask? Yes, absolutely. Broderick owns Bueller, no doubt, but he shines in ELECTION.

The great thing about Broderick is his everyman appeal. He’s got an innocent charm that he’s applied in many of his films (FERRIS included) and it starts off that way with ELECTION. He seems every bit that cool charmer that he always is, until he’s confronted with a moral conundrum that’s more than a little vengeful.  After his best friend and fellow teacher, Dave, is fired for having an extra-marital affair with Tracy, Mr. McAllister feels that she’s hardly the innocent go-getter she pretends to be and basically wants to see her put in her place.

However, with no one running against her in the election, Mr. McAllister has an epiphany (while watching porn, no less) and decides to enlist the popular jock, Paul, to run against her. Things get more complicated when Paul’s sister (Jessica Campbell) decides to run in the election as a means of revenge when her girlfriend leaves her for Paul (punctuated with Chris Klein’s hilarious “blowjob” scene).  Ultimately, the election becomes about individual motivations rather than the actual goal of winning to be a part of the student body.

“All these horrible, pathetic things happen, but it’s not as though any of the characters is bad, they’re just doing it all for the first time. They just don’t know any better.” – Alexander Payne

What follows is a journey of allegorical satire that examines the ugliness we can all display when attempting to win, including the ugliness of those who would do anything to see someone lose, and all the stupid mistakes we make when not using rational thought as our guiding light. It transcends well beyond a basic high school election, because it speaks a lot about who we are at the core when faced with temptation, competition, and jealousy. It’s painfully funny in so many ways, mostly because we’ve all had crazy predicaments that paint us into a corner and oftentimes all you can do is wait and see what happens, fingers crossed that it isn’t devastatingly awful or embarrassing.

Broderick, for his part, is the character that suffers the most. He is put through the ringer, ultimately by his own hand, at every turn, often making him every bit as immoral as Tracy. His intentions, which are to put Tracy in her place, backfire at every turn, even when she’s shown to be every bit as conniving. And Broderick kills it. He hits on every twitch, nod, reaction, and outburst, going from calm professional to obsessed maniac at the turn of a screw. It’s a warts-and-all-performance and makes for a character that you should probably hate, but still want to see pull through.

“…My character is not supposed to be the poster boy for teachers. And he certainly suffers for whatever mistakes he makes. If you want to look at it as a morality tale, he certainly pays for it. He seems to be living in total oblivion at the beginning. He's a happy teacher and he's going to be doing this the rest of his life. He's happily married. I think it's true that, right beneath the surface is waiting to burst out a whole different person. He's just happy and not aware of it…” – Matthew Broderick

Witherspoon earned a lot of accolades for her part and deservedly so (for once). She plays Tracy with all the fervor of the girl you likely hated in high school. You know the one. She was class president. She was involved in every group, always smiling and cheery, always getting her way. You knew she would go on to great things, like an Ivy League college and high salary job. And you hated her for it, even if you didn’t exactly know why. Witherspoon embodies all of that, while still adding enough spirit to make her at least somewhat likeable.

The structure of the film is brilliant. Introductions are made, which segue into flashbacks, which segue back to present day and various uses of voiceover, freeze frame to mild CGI (the “talking heads” scene while Broderick “fills up” his wife is awesome) pumping up the otherwise restrained deftness that carries it. Payne has proven to be a great storyteller and the amount of detail and craft that went into making ELECTION is evident in every frame.

Having rewatched the movie for this column (as I do each week), I have to say that ELECTION holds up tremendously. It looks sharp and vibrant in HD and everyone pulls out such great performances, making it instantly rewatchable. Payne has made great films since ELECTION (indeed ABOUT SCMIDT belongs in this column as well), but I feel that this is his signature pic. If nothing else, simply watching Broderick and Witherspoon at the height of their acting ability is a treat in itself.

“How to articulate it? I don’t know…It’s very human and it’s very real, It’s about life. It’s like life — I can’t sum it up. I hope always to make movies that can’t be easily summed up.” – Alexander Payne

MEMORABLE SCENE:

Like most movies, ELECTION is full of memorable scenes, but I think the one that really gets to the bottom of the conflict is the scene where Mr. McAllister confronts Tracy and accuses her of tearing down Paul’s campaign posters. It’s like an argument that starts over one thing and then snowballs into the heart of the real issue, which in this case is Mr. McAllister’s vengeful spite being at the center of his accusations and general disdain for Tracy, who in turn unleashes her own fury.

WATCH IT:

ELECTION is available on blu-ray and digital download (as well as HBO GO for subscribers). Get it here!

PARTING SHOT:

“You can certainly read Election as a high school novel. In fact, most critics did when the book came out. It was very disappointing for me because nobody seemed to understand that it was an allegory and that it was a political satire. But when the movie came out—and the movie really pushed the satirical element of the book, really magnified it—then suddenly critics understood it. And it was a humbling thing for me as a writer because I felt like the film embodied my intention maybe more powerfully than I had on the page. On the other hand, I felt—sad to say—that film critics were smarter than book critics.” – Tom Perrotta

Extra Tidbit: Be sure to Like, Share, Tweet, and Comment on The Best Movie You Never Saw!
Source: JoBlo.com

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+1
9:26PM on 07/13/2013

IT DESERVED A BEST PICTURE NOMINATION.

I first saw it when I was too young to understand the political allegory... and I still loved it. I was like "This could happen any day. This could happen to me". The article is right about how it shows our nature.

This prooves that box office results don't matter that much. The movie is a classic.
I first saw it when I was too young to understand the political allegory... and I still loved it. I was like "This could happen any day. This could happen to me". The article is right about how it shows our nature.

This prooves that box office results don't matter that much. The movie is a classic.
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1:25AM on 07/13/2013

Love this film

It uses a high school election to mirror actual elections and the vile people who are involved.
It uses a high school election to mirror actual elections and the vile people who are involved.
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6:02PM on 07/12/2013

i didn't realize there were people who hadn't seen this film

great write up- i LOVE election. i remember seeing it at a dollar theatre not long after it came out and was thoroughly surprised by it. such a funny, subversive little film. made me start following alexander payne in a big way.
great write up- i LOVE election. i remember seeing it at a dollar theatre not long after it came out and was thoroughly surprised by it. such a funny, subversive little film. made me start following alexander payne in a big way.
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5:50PM on 07/12/2013
I regret only seeing this movie once. It's so sharp and funny and my introduction to Alexander Payne (I've got Citizen Ruth in my Netflix queue, the only one of his I haven't seen). Reese Witherspoon's performance here is SO good, and I don't know where it came from or why she's never been able to match it. I think she perhaps should indulge her darker side more often, and then maybe we'd be surprised.
I regret only seeing this movie once. It's so sharp and funny and my introduction to Alexander Payne (I've got Citizen Ruth in my Netflix queue, the only one of his I haven't seen). Reese Witherspoon's performance here is SO good, and I don't know where it came from or why she's never been able to match it. I think she perhaps should indulge her darker side more often, and then maybe we'd be surprised.
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5:03PM on 07/12/2013

Cool.

Been wanting to see this for awhile. Always forget to look for it at Blockbuster ( yes I still go there). I think a good movie for this column would be James Wan's Death Sentence. I have always found this movie really underrated and people I show the movie to say they have never even heard of it . I know it probably wouldn't be the case on this site but just a recommendation!
Been wanting to see this for awhile. Always forget to look for it at Blockbuster ( yes I still go there). I think a good movie for this column would be James Wan's Death Sentence. I have always found this movie really underrated and people I show the movie to say they have never even heard of it . I know it probably wouldn't be the case on this site but just a recommendation!
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5:28PM on 07/12/2013
Death Sentence is a great recommendation. One of Kevin Bacon's best. Dark as shit! Good rec. I'll put it in the queue.
Death Sentence is a great recommendation. One of Kevin Bacon's best. Dark as shit! Good rec. I'll put it in the queue.
4:15PM on 07/12/2013
Payne hasn't made a single bad movie, IMO. But this is definitely my favorite of his. It's dark, witty, and allows the actors to have fun with their performances. I agree this was a standout Matthew Broderick movie. Brilliant.
Payne hasn't made a single bad movie, IMO. But this is definitely my favorite of his. It's dark, witty, and allows the actors to have fun with their performances. I agree this was a standout Matthew Broderick movie. Brilliant.
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3:46PM on 07/12/2013

I never saw it, mainly because of the lousy promo campaign

but I definitely want to see it now. A couple of suggestions for future columns: ENCHANTED APRIL (a charming British film that I often used for "date nights" back in the day) and TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL. I'm sure most Schmoes have seen it, but the more casual reader probably hasn't.
but I definitely want to see it now. A couple of suggestions for future columns: ENCHANTED APRIL (a charming British film that I often used for "date nights" back in the day) and TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL. I'm sure most Schmoes have seen it, but the more casual reader probably hasn't.
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1:45PM on 07/12/2013
One of the best comedies of the last 25 years, people need to see this movie. You Betzler!
One of the best comedies of the last 25 years, people need to see this movie. You Betzler!
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1:31PM on 07/12/2013
This is one of my favorite films. Glad this made your column.
This is one of my favorite films. Glad this made your column.
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1:22PM on 07/12/2013
Movie rocks. I'd vote Witherspoon out of movie jail for her performance in this...
Movie rocks. I'd vote Witherspoon out of movie jail for her performance in this...
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1:08PM on 07/12/2013
Chris Klein was my favorite part of this movie. He was just an endearing, lovable goof, free from all the vices everyone else in the movie had. This definitely is Broderick's big role; too bad it goes underappreciated. PS-that picture of Klein is laugh-out-loud funny. I don't know if a man has ever made that face during a blowjob....
Chris Klein was my favorite part of this movie. He was just an endearing, lovable goof, free from all the vices everyone else in the movie had. This definitely is Broderick's big role; too bad it goes underappreciated. PS-that picture of Klein is laugh-out-loud funny. I don't know if a man has ever made that face during a blowjob....
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+2
12:49PM on 07/12/2013

One of the best satire movies of all time.

IMO this one ,Anderson's "Rushmore" and Linklater's "Dazed and Confused" define the 90's high school movies. Also Election marks Witherspoon's best performance of her career. Payne is one of those directors that has yet to disappoint me, since i find all of his movies (seen them all, waiting for Nebraska) to be exceptionally great.
IMO this one ,Anderson's "Rushmore" and Linklater's "Dazed and Confused" define the 90's high school movies. Also Election marks Witherspoon's best performance of her career. Payne is one of those directors that has yet to disappoint me, since i find all of his movies (seen them all, waiting for Nebraska) to be exceptionally great.
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12:31PM on 07/12/2013
Dude, you're blowing my mind... I've been on an Alexander Payne kick the past week, cable's been showing Sideways & The Descendents a few times. I love the man's films, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendents. I'm probably one of the only on this site truly excited for Nebraska. Anyway I was just looking at his IMDB page just last night and realize I've seen all his features except his debut, 'Citizen Ruth' which I happen to own on lasedisc. This article is a sign I need to watch it!
Dude, you're blowing my mind... I've been on an Alexander Payne kick the past week, cable's been showing Sideways & The Descendents a few times. I love the man's films, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendents. I'm probably one of the only on this site truly excited for Nebraska. Anyway I was just looking at his IMDB page just last night and realize I've seen all his features except his debut, 'Citizen Ruth' which I happen to own on lasedisc. This article is a sign I need to watch it!
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12:47PM on 07/12/2013
PM, truly, sir.

I am in the same boat and have not seen Citizen Ruth. However, after writing this and doing my research, I found that Citizen Ruth is on Netflix streaming and promptly put it in my queue.

And I'm stoked for Nebraska, so there's at least two of us. :)
PM, truly, sir.

I am in the same boat and have not seen Citizen Ruth. However, after writing this and doing my research, I found that Citizen Ruth is on Netflix streaming and promptly put it in my queue.

And I'm stoked for Nebraska, so there's at least two of us. :)
+3
12:07PM on 07/12/2013

these have been great reads

but can we rename the title to "The best Movie non-jobloers never saw"? It appears that most of us have seen the movies selected here.
but can we rename the title to "The best Movie non-jobloers never saw"? It appears that most of us have seen the movies selected here.
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12:48PM on 07/12/2013
It's just a play-on-words-title, donger. Just enjoy the ride.
It's just a play-on-words-title, donger. Just enjoy the ride.
3:43PM on 07/12/2013
Not necessarily. Quite often, these are films people say they "have to see" then forget about. This column's a great idea; I want to see it continue.
Not necessarily. Quite often, these are films people say they "have to see" then forget about. This column's a great idea; I want to see it continue.
11:55AM on 07/12/2013
This is one of my favorite dark comedies. We quote it in my office constantly.
This is one of my favorite dark comedies. We quote it in my office constantly.
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11:14AM on 07/12/2013
I remember watching the movie the first time back in high school and expected it to be comedy. It's a comedy alright but more like dark comedy. It is surprisingly a very good movie (that I haven't watched in a while). My suggestion for Best Movie You Never Saw: The Car. I know it's about to be released on Blu Ray pretty soon and it's a good opportunity to revisit the movie again.
I remember watching the movie the first time back in high school and expected it to be comedy. It's a comedy alright but more like dark comedy. It is surprisingly a very good movie (that I haven't watched in a while). My suggestion for Best Movie You Never Saw: The Car. I know it's about to be released on Blu Ray pretty soon and it's a good opportunity to revisit the movie again.
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11:11AM on 07/12/2013

This is a Good Film

But it's not Alexander Payne's best. Though it is a solid first film.
But it's not Alexander Payne's best. Though it is a solid first film.
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11:55AM on 07/12/2013
Citizen Ruth actually predates this one by a few years. Check it out if you haven't seen it!
Citizen Ruth actually predates this one by a few years. Check it out if you haven't seen it!
7:04PM on 07/12/2013
I thought Citizen Ruth was a made for cable film that was done after Election? I stand corrected, sir :)
I thought Citizen Ruth was a made for cable film that was done after Election? I stand corrected, sir :)
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