Election may be an MTV production set in high school, but that doesn't mean it's all about kids. In fact, the central figure of this appealingly eccentric comedy is Matthew Broderick, 13 years after Ferris Bueller's Day Off, as an American history and civics teacher in a mid-life crisis. This second feature from the talented director of Citizen Ruth, Alexander Payne, has the same dark edge and offbeat sensibility, and could emerge as a cult favorite.
The title election is for student-council president at George Washington Carver High in Omaha, Nebraska, and scary overachiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) looks to be a shoo-in. That prospect unsettles popular teacher Jim McAllister (Broderick), who has a strong distaste for Tracy's naked ambition and who has seen his friend and colleague Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik) fired in disgrace after an extramarital affair with the young dynamo. Jim plots to end the girl's power trip by grooming his own presidential candidate: good-natured but spacy football star Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), who has been forced to sit out the season after a spectacular skiing accident. Then, a dark horse suddenly appears: Paul's lesbian younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) enters the race for spite after her budding girlfriend leaves her and starts dating Paul. A once-predictable formality has now become a cutthroat competition.
Adapting their screenplay from a novel by Tom Perrotta, Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor smoothly segue among four narrators (Jim and the three candidates), but the most compelling of the bunch is Broderick's quietly desperate teacher. With the thrill long gone from his marriage to well-meaning wife Diane (Molly Hagan), Jim finds his erotic thoughts turning to his buddy Dave's estranged wife Linda (Delaney Driscoll) and even, on rare, shudder-inducing occasions, to the irritating Tracy. The star pupil, with her superhuman drive, comes to symbolize for Jim all the condescension and frustration he feels as a simple high-school teacher mired in a professional and marital rut. Planting a popular jock in the presidential race would seem to be surefire sabotage, but the ploy eventually blows up in Jim's face.
Anyone with fond memories of Broderick's impish performance in Ferris Bueller will have a few queasy moments seeing him back in a high-school setting as an adult burnout. The actor's comic timing is sharp as ever (especially as he rushes to make a mid-afternoon sexual rendezvous), and there's a funny coda as his character starts a new life in New York and begins to act and look like a kid again. In a role that's 180 degrees from her memorable white-trash hellion in Freeway, Witherspoon creates a deliciously neurotic caricature as a girl for whom getting ahead is everything. Newcomer Metzler defies the usual stereotype as a high-school jock who's actually sweet (if dumb)--the kind of part that would have been tailor-made for Keanu Reeves ten years ago. Campbell brings an appealing fierceness to onetime outcast Tammy, for whom expulsion to an all-girl Catholic school is not the punishment it appears.
As a director, Payne continues to show a refreshing looseness, if not quite in the same league as that other recent quirky high-school comedy, Rushmore. His soundtrack choices are especially witty, from the saccharine version of 'Gonna Get Along Without You Now' that accompanies Tammy's breakup with her girlfriend, to the unbridled African chants that blast away whenever Tracy loses her cool.