THE CURBSIDE CRITERION: ELECTION
(We here at Hammer to Nail are all about true independent cinema. But we also have to tip our hat to the great films of yesteryear that continue to inspire filmmakers and cinephiles alike. This week, our “The Curbside Criterion” continues where HtN staff can trot out thoughts on the finest films ever made. Today Brad Cook casts his vote for the new Criterion Blu-Ray release of Alexander Payne’s sophomore film Election.)
If all politics are local, then Election serves as a handy synopsis of the way many elections play out in the United States. Based on the 1998 novel of the same name, Alexander Payne’s second movie serves as a darkly comedic commentary on not just politics but also the pettiness of high school life, which is political in its own way. (This movie has layers, dude.)
Election stars Matthew Broderick as Jim McAllister, a high school civics teacher who fits the mold of just about every depressed, middle-aged teacher you’ve ever seen. (I have kids, so I’ve seen my share.) He’s broken down and marking time until he retires, but he gets an odd jolt of energy from dealing with one of his students, Tracy Flick, who previously seduced one of Jim’s colleagues and turned that guy’s life into a disaster.
Jim can barely tolerate Tracy, who embodies all the worst characteristics of every annoying high school overachiever you’ve ever seen. (I went to a pretty good high school, so I saw my share of those too.) She’s cute, smart, and bubbly, but she’s also vindictive and manipulative; she’ll smile while driving a dagger straight into your back.
When Tracy announces that she’s (of course) running for student body president, Jim decides he’ll teach her a lesson or two by secretly backing one of her competitors and doing whatever he can to derail her aspirations. However, middle-aged men have nothing on teenage girls in the petty manipulation department (I have a teenage daughter, so I can say that), and Jim’s schemes turn into a series of unfortunate events that leave the audience laughing while also feeling sorry for the poor guy.
Like many of Payne’s films, Election doesn’t have a neat-and-tidy ending. The United States is full of people like Jim and Tracy, and most of them end up with fates similar to the film’s characters. Sure, it’s not fair, but Donald Trump is President as I write this, so don’t talk to me about fair.
Even though it tanked at the box office in 1999, Election, like Tracy Flick, proved to be resilient and went on to have a happy life on home video. It’s been available on Blu-ray before, but now it’s gotten the Criterion treatment, which includes a new 4K digital transfer that was approved by Payne, along with a batch of cupcakes – I mean, bonus features.
- Commentary by Alexander Payne: Recorded in 1999 when the making of the movie was still fresh in the director’s mind, this track is an informative look back. There are a few dead spots where he stops talking, but overall, this is a good track.
- TruInside: Election (40 minutes): This documentary features interviews with nearly the entire cast, except Reese Witherspoon, along with Payne, film critics Matt Singer and Amy Nicholson, and Tom Perrotta, who wrote the original novel. It’s a comprehensive look at the making of the movie from beginning to end, and it features a glimpse at the alternate ending, which isn’t on this disc. (The deleted scenes mentioned by Payne during his commentary aren’t on the Blu-ray either.)
- Who Care? I Do! (10 minutes): Here’s Witherspoon with her thoughts on the movie. She’s as adorable as her character, minus the knife-in-the-back stuff.
- The Passion of Martin (49 minutes): This is Payne’s 1990 UCLA thesis film, which is the story of a lonely photographer who obsesses over a woman. Current events give it an extra layer of creepiness. Payne also filmed a 10-minute introduction to the film in which he talks not only about the experience of making it but also the movies that influenced him when he was growing up.
- A news report by an Omaha station that gushes over the fact that a Hollywood production was going on in their backyard.
- The trailer
The obligatory print supplement is a fold-out with an essay by film critic Dana Stevens, who notes that Election “presages with eerie clarity the political fortunes and plunging public morale of early twenty-first-century America. Contested election results, a dubious recount, a populist demagogue running on a platform of sheer nihilism, a hyperqualified female candidate punished for her unseemly ambition – all these developments still lay in the country’s future when Election came out, but the movie already felt timeless in a way that only great comedy can.”
Preach it, Dana.