Tracy Flick is one of those people who manages to get very far in life while being thoroughly unlikable. Vain, pedantic and with a broad amoral streak running right through her Pepsodent personality, she's Carver High's standout achiever, the kind of girl whose relentless overreaching affords her fellow students time to slack.
At the beginning of "Election," Alexander Payne's stinging follow-up to the 1996 "Citizen Ruth," Tracy ("Pleasantville" and "Cruel Intentions'" Reese Witherspoon) is running unopposed for what she envisions as the crown jewel of her high school career: student council president. But while her relentless perkiness and profound sense of entitlement hardly even register with her fellow students, they have not escaped the attention of teacher and student council advisor Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick). As Tracy ramps up her campaigning efforts, Mr. M.'s irritation blossoms into profound loathing, with just a hint of sick attraction. Politics is rarely pretty, but the students and faculty at Carver High are about to find out just how ugly it can get.
As directed and co-written (with Jim Taylor) by Payne, "Election" is a tart study in teacher-student relations, adolescent pecking orders and the nasty vicissitudes of living in a world of haves and have-nots. It's also wickedly funny, an ode to youthful overachievers that's as blackhearted as "Rushmore" was gently sentimental. Tracy is the dark mirror image of that movie's Max Fischer: She's relentless, focused and insufferably prissy about achieving her ends.
As he did in "Citizen Ruth," director Payne doesn't allow you to smugly laugh at his characters; he's going to make you walk a mile in their perfectly polished penny loafers first. He gives the story four narrators, each with a uniquely biased spin. Then he makes sure that Tracy, who is as hollow and noxious as they come, is seen for what she really is, a pathetically lonely, friendless girl, a tough scrapper working like a demon to get her ass out of Omaha. Mr. M., her justifiably revolted educator, isn't some righteous avenger but a rumpled loser, spiraling rapidly from good-natured encouragement to outright sabotage. The man isn't just trying to teach Tracy a lesson, and he sure as hell isn't encouraging sidelined football player Paul (Chris Klein) to run for student council because he cares so much for the kid. He's a bitter little man trying to take that bitch down.
While "Election" is far from perfect -- it ambles on a little too long and occasionally heaves under the weight of multiple characters and subplots -- it's nevertheless one of the year's most satisfying comedies. Payne weaves a tale that can be viewed as a teen comedy or a satire of a premature midlife crisis with equal satisfaction, and his gift for jokes both broad and subtle has only improved since his last film. Everything -- from the biggest tantrums to the paraphernalia in characters' bedrooms -- reveals something quirky and unexpected about the story.
Both Witherspoon and Broderick are agile comedians, eliciting laughs from both tiny twitches and full-body breakdowns, but there's a particular gratification that comes from seeing Broderick -- 13 years after playing suave class-cutter Ferris Bueller -- confined to wearing shlubby teacher garb and prowling the halls of high school purgatory. Other performers are just as watchable, in particular Chris Klein as the sweetly oblivious jock, and Jessica Campbell as his braces-wearing, rage-filled lesbian sister. They all project both the sad longing for things they can't have and the resolute determination to change fate -- though Paul may be the only one who doesn't have a chip on his shoulder about it. Jim hates Tracy for her calculating ambition and overinflated ego just as much as Tracy hates Paul for his wealth and easy popularity.
Lily Tomlin once observed that the problem with winning the rat race is that at the end of it, you're still a rat. Alexander Payne, however, is tweaking the formula, by asking who it is we're really running against. Mr. M., in waging psychic warfare on Tracy Flick, is both unleashing and taming his own demons. We have met the enemy, Payne says, and they are us -- and that is a truly worthy adversary.