Election (1999)

*. Election is based on a short novel by Tom Perrotta, who also wrote the novel Little Children. It’s interesting that both film adaptations, while very good, change their sources in similar ways. What I mean is that they keep most of the story elements but reimagine the theme and change the endings. Put another way, they have the same words but different music.
*. Perrotta’s theme in Election is that of people looking for a new start or second chance. Not just the male teachers who want to dump their wives for someone new but Tammy Warren getting to start over at a Catholic school and Tracy Flick escaping the New Jersey ‘burbs (the movie whisks the school off to Omaha, Nebraska). But in the book these are exposed as pipe dreams. Just because we’re in a new relationship, or have a new job, or go to a new school, doesn’t mean that we have changed. Which means that nothing changes. In Perrotta’s novel, for example, Tammy is just as unhappy at her new school, while Mr. M. gets back together with his wife and goes to work at a local car dealership. Even Tracy is left just running in place. It’s this same realization of their being stuck in their lives that all of the characters carry with them.

*. That’s not the message in Alexander Payne’s movie, though Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor seem to have thought otherwise. They thought the message that nothing changes was maintained but I’m not so sure. Tammy is lovin’ it at Immaculate Heart, Mr. M. is divorced but starting a new life in New York City, and Tracy’s next stop is the White House. The movie’s point seems to have more to do with the dangerousness of people like Tracy who see themselves as driven by destiny and whose lives are meant to follow straight paths to whatever they envision success to be. That Tracy’s ambition is directed toward politics is obviously a mark against her, but I think it’s her sense of mission that really makes us distrust her. After all, Mr. M. always wanted to be a teacher. But what kind of a person wants to be a politician?
*. I should note that Payne did originally end the movie with a coda that more closely followed Perrotta’s book, but he scrapped it when test audiences disapproved. All for nought at the box office, as audiences still stayed away. But it’s significant that they had to change the ending because it was seen as being “tonally out-of-synch with the rest of the movie.” Indeed it was, because the tone of the rest of the movie had changed from the book.

*. I like Election. It’s a very carefully made movie with good performances by all the players. But Perrotta’s book has a few moments of real insight and indirect profundity and I don’t think Payne captures any of them, going instead for something lighter and more broadly satirical.
*. What we get here is very close to cartoonish caricature. Paul is the dumb jock and Tracy is Katy Keen, her flagpole of an arm indicating her career trajectory. Her begging to be allowed to answer the teacher’s questions reminded me of Lisa Simpson’s classroom behaviour, which made me reflect on whether, at the end of the day, the satire here was that far advanced from an episode of The Simpsons.
*. That may seem a bit strong, but I like The Simpsons, and do we ever get much of a sense of what’s driving Tracy? Does her character have any depth? She is a power player and, like most politicians I suspect, a natural performer. Perhaps there is nothing behind her phony smile, and there are no real political goals she wants to achieve beyond acquiring power. In fact, I think we can probably take that much for granted. Is she then a pure politician?

*. I’ve said it’s carefully made, but there are a few missteps. I didn’t like including Mr. M.’s epiphany while watching the porn movie. That was unnecessary (it’s not in the book) and the film doesn’t look remotely like any porn flick from the era. There’s a class angle that doesn’t go anywhere, in large part because the privileged Paul turns out to be such a decent guy. I also thought the three student prayers were overdone. I wish Payne had had the confidence to stay subtle. I guess the movie gains something for being so cartoonish — Tracy Flick has gone on to become an iconic figure, a new type we would come to know well that David Thomson christened the “toxic nerd” — but I think a lot is lost as well.
*. Critics have been quick to read later events into it. In her Criterion essay Dana Stevens mentions the ballot recount of Bush v. Gore and Tracy Flick as Hillary Clinton. I don’t see where such comparisons take us, in part because I’m not sure where Payne wants to go with the satire. Having lost Perrotta’s theme of second chances, what does Mr. M.’s story have to do with politics? Or really with anything? It’s not like he was an innocent destroyed by Tracy’s Machiavellian machinations. Instead he was crushed by her manifest destiny. But if destiny really is the operative force here, then there’s not much anyone can do but get out of the way.

*. The upshot of all this, at least for me, is that while I enjoyed Election I liked the book better and came away from the movie thinking that there was less going on than there seems. I appreciate its craftsmanship and the effective use of leitmotifs (like garbage bags and apples), but as Tammy points out, none of the political stuff matters anyway. Certainly not in high school, and perhaps nowhere else.
*. That would be a cynical note to end on though, and I don’t think Election is a cynical movie. Maybe it’s just the presence of Matthew Broderick. We can’t believe he’s a bad man, can we? Just temporarily blinded by love, and a bee sting. Alas, while not a bad man, he is a loser. Which is, as a future president would assert, the very worst thing to be in America.

2 thoughts on “Election (1999)

  1. Tom Moody

    I haven’t seen Election since its theatrical run but “Tracy Flick” seems like an indelible character to me, a la Madame Bovary, Augustus’ wife Livia, Livia Soprano, George Babbitt, or Elmer Gantry.
    What motivates the character? An ambitious, sociopathic mother and blind will. Is she a true type? Absolutely. Every classroom and workplace has a Tracy Flick, pushing and scheming for power. Not necessarily with the power of a demagogue but with the implacability of a master technocrat: instead of Hitler or Bush Junior, think Albert Speer or Dick Cheney. As some sage commenter recently said, a fascist state can exist without its Hitlers but not without its Albert Speers. Washington DC has the highest proportion of Flicks per capita, so it’s natural that she would gravitate there. Hillary Clinton probably is a good analogy, except she failed upward all the way to the final threshold, and then just flat-out lost.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      The analogies with Hillary Clinton are interesting. I think maybe Clinton’s doom was precisely in her not wanting to stay in the shadows or the background like a Speer or a Cheney but wanting to be the face of her own regime, which is a role she was completely unsuited for. She just didn’t have the charisma or other personal qualities, which is something she seemed to recognize (saying she wasn’t good at retail politics, that she could do the job but couldn’t run for it). This is a self awareness that I think Tracy comes to in Perrotta’s novel, but I’m not sure Reese Witherspoon ever arrives at it. At least we don’t see her coming to such an understanding. In the book, and the movie’s final scene that was shot but then cut, we see her with her yearbook that hardly anybody will sign and her realizing that she’ll never be personally popular like the dumb jock she was running against. I like the ending in the movie, but it’s more broadly comic and doesn’t have the same bite for me. The point seems more obvious and less personal. Tracy is just a force of destiny and unstoppable. But as Clinton proved, you do run into a wall. Sure, because she’s a woman, but I think that’s only part of it and it’s noteworthy that neither Clinton nor Flick personally made anything of this (or at least Clinton really didn’t until after the election).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.