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Far From Clueless

TIMES FILM CRITIC

They get all the movies--or at least it seems that way. They control an impressive share of America’s free time and disposable income. And most everyone covets their youthful good looks. You’ve always suspected it and “Election,” a sharp and merciless comedy, tells you it’s true: Teenagers rule.

The best and brightest high school adventure since the groundbreaking “Heathers” (1989), “Election” posits a devastatingly funny world where fumbling adults are powerless when confronted by determined young people motivated by the devil of self-interest. Co-written and directed by Alexander Payne (“Citizen Ruth”) and powered by expert performances by Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, this is a fierce teen satire that adults will have no difficulty cherishing.

One reason high school has proved to be such an effective incubator of blackly humorous films is that it’s the adult world writ small. Anyone looking, as Payne surely is, to skewer the ways self-centered behavior is camouflaged and rationalized by ambitious minds couldn’t feel more at home than among the mainstream kids at Omaha’s mythical George Washington Carver High.

Adapted from a novel by Tom Perrotta by Payne and his “Ruth” co-writer, Jim Taylor, “Election” is both funnier than that debut and subtler in its choice of targets. Helped by being adroitly cast down to its tiniest roles (Lisa Beach was the casting director), this is a nearly flawless little film, a cheerful nightmare that knows just where it wants to go and uses precisely calibrated comic effects to get there.

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Payne and Taylor get some of their best results by employing multiple voice-overs. Each of the film’s major characters has his or her shot at providing after-the-fact commentary on events as they unfold, competing in very much an adversarial way to get their personal version of what we see happening onto the official record.

In an alternate universe, Jim McCallister and Tracy Flick could have been allies, even friends. Both care enormously, almost unreasonably, about what happens at Carver High. But destiny pulls them apart, and as Tracy puts it with typical off-kilter bluntness, “you can’t interfere with destiny. That’s why it’s destiny.”

Broderick, in a role that is a near-perfect fit, plays the slightly lost, slightly woebegone but awfully sincere McCallister, the kind of educator everyone calls Mr. M. He’s been named teacher of the year three times at Carver, a school record. Mr. M means it when he says, “I got involved, I made a difference.”

Tracy (a completely delightful Witherspoon) also got involved, and with a vengeance. Bright-eyed, chipper and determined, she’s everywhere at Carver, playing Hodel in “Fiddler on the Roof,” working on the yearbook, and thinking nothing of customizing 480 cupcakes should the need arise. Mr. M views Tracy as the most ambitious student he’s ever seen. And, for a variety of reasons, he can’t stand her.

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So when Tracy decides to run for student council president, Mr. M encourages star athlete Paul Metzler (a telling debut for Chris Klein) to run against her. The most popular as well as the densest man on campus, Paul is the kind of guy who seeks serious spiritual guidance from “The Celestine Prophecy” and then falls asleep trying to read it.

Naturally, Tracy takes competition as a personal affront; “the weak,” she squeaks in her purposeful little voice, “are always trying to sabotage the strong.” The battle that ensues, which eventually involves Tammy Metzler (Jessica Campbell), Paul’s sexually confused sister (“I’m not a lesbian but I’m only attracted to women”), and even Mr. M’s wife Diane (Molly Hagan), leaves few people or institutions unscathed.

“Election’s” humor comes not just from its farcical situations but its dead-on, deeply tongue-in-cheek dialogue. And Payne, who enjoys periodically jolting the audience with either a bit of particularly raw sexual dialogue or an unexpected visual point of view, directs it with a great sense of dark comic style.

“Election” takes particular glee in demonstrating the obtuseness of adults like gee-whiz principal Walt Hendricks (Phil Reeves) and showing how conniving students can be when they’re consumed by their jealousies, rivalries and relationships. “Election” enjoys making the audience complicit in all these wicked schemes; making us feel good about people being bad is one of this film’s most satisfying triumphs.

* MPAA rating: R for strong sexuality, sex-related dialogue and language, and a scene of drug use.

‘Election’

Reese Witherspoon: Tracy Flick

Matthew Broderick: Jim McCallister

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Phil Reeves: Walt Hendricks

Chris Klein: Paul Metzler

Jessica Campbell: Tammy Metzler

An MTV Films Production in association with Bona Fide Productions. Directed by Alexander Payne, produced by Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, David Gale and Keith Samples. Screenplay by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor based on the novel by Tom Perrotta. Director of photography James Glennon. Editor Kevin Tent. Music by Rolfe Kent. Costumes by Wendy Chuck. Production design by Jane Ann Stewart. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

Playing in general release.


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