Saturday, April 5, 2014



The day finally came for my debut in the Stardust Lounge on board the mighty Norwegian Star cruise liner. I was there for hours, readying my Sink For Your Supper set of songs with the house band and determining how best to set such immortal ballads as The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and It Was Sad When the Great Ship Went Down in a venue where I could not use a motorized iceberg or even the odd bucket of sea water to drench the audience for proper emotional effect. I decided to go for less is more, a pale sage colored satin sheath with lime sequin rosettes along the bias lines - when the green spot hits, it gave the proper bilious tinge to my perfect skin tones, reminding the audience of mal de mer.

My set was highly successful, the usual standing ovation and bouquets of anthuriums and plumeria at my feet. Then it was time for that headline stealing ex-beauty queen, Miss Richfield, 1981 to perform. Half way through her first number, she learned an important lesson. Never attempt a tribute to Kate Smith while wearing roller skates on a cruise ship in motion. She slid right into a backing flat and it took several hours to extricate both her teeth and her hair from the canvas and plywood, much to the amusement of the audience. I, of course, took advantage of the situation by doing a second set, a tribute to tap, while the crew industriously worked behind me to free the poor old dear. It's lucky I had that little can of 3 in 1 oil with me that day - never again will I be booked as an opening act.

After my triumphant performance, I was somewhat exhausted and retired to my cabin. I had no stamina for either the Karaoke Circus or the Survivor: Marquesas dance party so I settled in with a film. The choice was Alexander Payne's 1999 wicked little comedy, Election starring Matthew Broderick as a hapless high school civics teacher and Reese Witherspoon as his nemesis, a student who will do anything to win the student council presidency.

Broderick, well known for his starring role in the classic high school film Ferris Beuller's Day Off, returns to a Midwest school, this time as a teacher. He plays Jim McAllister, history and civics teacher and adviser to the student government. His best friend, fellow teacher Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), has an affair with a ruthless young student, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), which costs him his job and marriage. When Tracy sets her sights on becoming student council president and appears to be unopposed, McAllister is determined to stop her and recruits popular athlete Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her. Paul's unintentional sexual betrayal of his sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a budding lesbian, leads her to also enter the race as a spoiler on a nihilist platform. The undeclared war between the befuddled McAllister and the focused Tracy eventually leads to unexpected actions on the parts of all the principals before everyone gets more or less what they deserve.

This is not a film about plot as much as a film about character, both individual and societal. Writer/director Payne, working from a novel by Tom Perrotta, uses his scenes as scalpels, dissecting through layers to uncover the unpleasant truths behind how our society really works. He takes no particular point of view, but merely shows action and consequence and the dynamics of the individual in a flawed democratic system. While the film was produced long before the disputed presidential election of 2000, the denouement echoes the outcome of that race with uncanny prescience. He also cleverly comes up with high school equivalents of smear campaigns, dirty tricks, vote buying and soft money. As in his previous film, Citizen Ruth, Payne is interested in looking at all sides of complicated and convoluted issues and is not keen on advancing any particular agenda. This makes his films much more interesting than the preachy polemics that usually get made about major social issues.

Reese Witherspoon is sensational as the driven Tracy. Her cherubic innocence and blond curls hide a fierce determination not to let anyone or anything stand in the way of her goals. She's not afraid to make her character unlikable, but at the same time, she gives us just enough vulnerability that we care what happens to her. It's easy to project a few years into the future with Witherspoon's Tracy and see a successful, but deeply lonely and unhappy human being, a telling comment from Payne on the prices we pay for 'success'. Broderick uses his natural charm to advantage. There is enough high school iconography attached to him from his earlier film career to carry us straight to the heart of his flaws. This is a man who doesn't know what he really wants or what he wants to do and so he's trapped in circles, as opposed to Tracy's straight line approach to life. He's also not afraid to make himself look bad in service to the character, wandering through much of the latter part of the film with a swollen eye from a beesting, unshaven, and generally looking highly unpleasant.

The project was shot in an actual Omaha area high school during a school year and the majority of the extras are the real high school students. This gives the setting a reality that most Hollywood films about high school lack, with their casts of 20 somethings trying to look fifteen. Here we have a world of 15 year olds with all the gawkiness and unattractiveness that adolescence implies. Witherspoon, Klein and Campbell, all in their late teens or very early 20s at the time, are young enough and good enough performers to fit believably into this world. Jessica Campbell, in particular, captures the angst of raging hormones and half formed adult identity perfectly.

The major flaw in the film is the off-color nature of some moments. The sex is actually toned down some from the original novel, but the film would work as well, and perhaps be more interesting if it were more implied than explicit. The sex scenes seem more there to titillate a teen audience than for actual story telling purposes.

The DVD contains the film in its original theatrical ratio. The colors seem a bit murky in some scenes but the transfer is adequate. The sound makes little use of surround sound capabilities. The only significant extra is a commentary track from writer/director Payne who is relatively well spoken and gives significant information about his thought process in putting the project together and the points he was trying to make.

Dropped Chinese food. Gymnasium assemblies. Button stamping. Soul mates on swings. Gratuitous use of four letter words by underage persons. Lapse of morals. Lapse of ethics. Symbolic apple tree. No-tell motel. Yearbook darkroom kisses. Cement plant party.

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