Blu-ray Review: Election (1999)

Tracy Flick Won't Let a
Presidential Inauguration Get In Her Way
Pick Flick on Blu-ray

Already Available

Director Alexander Payne

Sideways Hits Blu-ray on 2/3

Author Tom Perrotta


Following the earlier comparison to Lucy in the Peanuts Cartoon Strip which called up images of the know-it-all bossy girl who ran an advice stand and dominated her male friends, after Alexander Payne's 1999 release of his cult favorite independent comedy Election, it seems as though every woman running for political office is compared to the film's fictional overachiever Tracy Enid Flick. For proof, enter in a female candidate's name and Tracy Flick on YouTube or turn on any major cable news channel and let the sexism rip.

Embodied by Reese Witherspoon in the film that launched her from supporting roles into the commanding Oscar winning presence she would become, Election garnered Ms. Witherspoon a Golden Globe nomination for her pitch perfect performance.

If Charlie Brown's Lucy isn't your thing, to put it bluntly, Tracy Flick is the brand of Type A, unrelenting ball-buster that makes men-- much like her film nemesis, the popular teacher turned selfish saboteur Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick playing the type of man that Ferris Bueller would've hated)-- both infinitely nervous and cross their legs. Thus, like McAllister, they'll do anything to crush her by any means necessary.

Payne's Election-- an unceasingly dark and satirical take filled with unsympathetic characters-- was inspired by the '98 novel by Little Children author Tom Perrotta who based his book on What Makes Sammy Run?, the '92 Bush/Clinton/Perot election and an incident where a Wisconsin high school faculty member burned winning ballots to prevent a pregnant student from becoming prom queen.

And although it's revealed that in the book, Tracy is far more attractive (with some phrasing quoted by Wikipedia that recalls Nabokov's Lolita) and there are major differences in plot concerning what happens to the ensemble characters, Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor pushed their version to the edge.

While it was released within a few years of the terrifically sunny take on high school-- Amy Heckerling's Jane Austen Emma inspired Clueless and Wes Anderson's humorous, melancholy, yet heartwarming Rushmore-- Election is a film for which it's truly hard to vote.

Despite the first-rate performances and writing--we're torn as we watch McAllister's unraveling personally and professionally as he persuades a dumb but sweet jock (Chris Klein in his first role) to run against the dedicated but friendless Tracy whose affair with his colleague destroyed him forever. Yet, by never truly giving us someone with which to empathize, we're a bit baffled by the overall mean-spiritedness of the purposely ugly feature that seems to specialize in finding the worst angles and most repulsive aspects of humanity to magnify.

It's a similar problem I had with the joyless and equally misanthropic About Schmidt and although I greatly admired Payne's sharp Citizen Ruth and still feel that Sideways was one of the best mature comedies of the last few years, I realize that no matter how many times I try and revisit Election as years go by (and this could very well be my eighth viewing), I evaluate more films, and gather more life experience, I still can't completely recommend it.

Finding humor in misery and appalling actions obviously exaggerated to effect-- while Payne's penchant for pain works exceedingly well in places such as showing the actual ugliness of teachers who have affairs with students as Tracy's instructor (in flashback) seduces her to Lionel Ritchie in his house with baby toys in the family room after a heart to heart at a pizza joint, most of the time we're not sure just what the director's attitude is about the story he's aspiring to tell.

Broderick completely breaks free from the stereotype of his youth as an '80s icon (as he did in Helen Hunt's superb Then She Found Me and the recent Magnolia film Finding Amanda which benefited mostly from his unscrupulous turn ) and I can't think of any other actress better suited for the manipulative, cutey-pie, fast-talking Flick than Witherspoon who seems to be taking a cue from Faye Dunaway in Network mixed with an Avon lady (which seems fitting because Witherspoon is now the face of Avon).

But, it must be said that for women, the film was essentially one step forward and two steps back. As recent as last week in the event of Caroline Kennedy's withdrawal for consideration for New York office (whether one agrees or disagrees with her campaign to take office in the first place is unimportant), political pundits on news channels began tossing around comparisons to Tracy Flick, just as they had for the women preceding her including Sarah Palin and Hillary Rodham Clinton (who was endlessly dubbed Flick).

Would Payne's Election have been as successful or memorable as if Broderick was trying to take down an overachieving male or is there something subconsciously rooted deep within us that finds the idea of super ambitious Type A women especially dangerous and worth ridiculing? Additionally, you have to wonder why women must try so very hard to compete and why even at times we turn on each other to do so, labeling one another Tracy Flick. I have my theory and the answer is that the fault lies not in Election's frequent use of the biblical metaphor involving the Apple or Eve but that the fault is directly Adam's (ahem, or McAllister's and by extension Payne's) in this particular case.

It's these questions that are well worth considering whether you love the film and/or hate it, just as one needs to question the choice of making the rest of the female characters mostly unlikable as well as Klein's trouble-making lesbian sister played by Jessica Campbell stereotypically tries to get even for a broken heart, Broderick's wife basically uses him as a stud endlessly hoping to get pregnant, and he goes after his colleague's ex and now sex-starved wife.

Still it must be said that one cannot argue that Broderick is the most reprehensible character of the lot. Yet foolishly there were some critiques that raised questions as to which character was worse-- Flick or McAllister that are just plain ridiculous as one was a child and one an adult authority figure. And willing to take the brunt of the blame as the film's idiot, Broderick is photographed in incredibly unflattering ways in the movie as he urinates on an apple tree as aforementioned, apples are used throughout as another Adam/Eve sexist metaphor as is the battle between Tracy who represents Coca Cola and McAllister who represents Pepsi. Despite this, Election is decidedly slanted in its portrayal of women who dare to dream.

And even if they annoy the hell out of us in the process with endless buttons and cupcakes like Flick, again and maybe it's unfortunate that this Blu-ray is released following a national election (and on the President's Inauguration no less) where sexism definitely played a role in media coverage-- ultimately, we must ask just how much of Tracy being a female is why the film is deemed so incredibly "funny" and why she's considered so "shrill."

Transferred to high definition-- while clarity is improved-- the color quality was always meant to be muted and purposely drab and ugly so the Blu-ray isn't overly impressive or necessary when compared to its DVD counterpart, especially considering that the sole extra feature is filmmaker commentary that runs throughout, making it unworthy of an upgrade unless you're a fan purchasing the film for the first time.