Five Reasons Why Election Is Still a Perfect Comedy, 20 Years Later

Alexander Payne’s razor-sharp, high school-set satire, which opened on April 23, 1999, is still as fresh and as relevant as ever.

by | April 23, 2019 | Comments

Released halfway through what many argue is the best year in film history, Election didn’t exactly set the box-office ablaze after it debuted on April 23, 1999 — the $25 million-budgeted movie made a mere $17.2 during its run. And while critics for the most part went gaga for it — Election is Certified Fresh at 92% — compared to other class-of-’99 highlights, it’s almost easy to understand the general public’s collective confusion about it: It’s not a technological game-changer like The Matrix (88%), not a Best Picture conversation piece like American Beauty (88%), not an ambitiously sprawling drama like Magnolia, not a dorm-room philosophical manifesto like Fight Club (79%), and, even with its high-school setting, not quite what first pops into mind when we talk about ’90s teen movies (despite being co-produced by MTV).

Director Alexander Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor’s follow-up to their abortion satire Citizen Ruth (80%) is not a tidy sell. The comedy, which follows an idealistic teacher (Matthew Broderick) hell bent on making sure one particularly ambitious student (Reese Witherspoon) loses the school’s presidential election, is decidedly dark yet laugh-out-loud funny and paced at a fun, confident clip. So how good is it, with the benefit of two decades’ worth of hindsight? Let us count the ways.

Its Script Is Better Than the Book It Was Based on (and That’s Saying Something)

Before his novels were adapted into big-deal film and TV projects (Little Children, The Leftovers), a then-unemployed Tom Perrotta, obsessed with the one-two punch of the Anita Hill hearings and the 1992 U.S. Presidential election, cooked up a brisk, very funny page turner in response. Election’s narrative setup, in which each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, couldn’t have been easy to sell on the big screen. Yet Payne and Taylor stick to it, economically and tidily introducing each main player (Broderck’s Mr. M., Witherspoon’s Flick, Chris Klein’s smiley jock Paul Metzler, Jessica Campbell’s nihilistic Tammy Metzler), usually doing something embarrassing. (See: the freeze frame of Witherspoon’s unbecoming expression.)

Speaking of embarrassing, Payne and Taylor’s script consistently strips away any empathy for these characters that the book had, pointing out that most of the people onscreen are essentially trash. (Just count the number of shots of refuse, or when it’s used as a major plot point). Similarly, the duo cook up new scenes, like Mr. M. being stung in the eye by a bee (humiliating) or the re-shot ending, in which — spoiler alert! — the now-disgraced teacher doesn’t have a sort of heart-to-heart with Flick as he does in the novel, but instead chucks a soda (trash again) at her limo when he spots her in D.C.

The Casting Is Ace, with Breakthroughs, Debuts, and One Indelible Character

Paramount courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by Paramount courtesy Everett Collection)

After her turns in Fear and Cruel Intentions, Witherspoon was keen to go full-comedy, initially hoping to play Tammy Metzler, the screw-it-all sister of popular football star Paul Metzler who makes waves as a last-minute candidate in her school’s student council election, running against her brother. But she was convinced to take on the role of Tracy Flick instead — and thank god for that. Beyond critical hosannas from the likes of Roger Ebert and a much-deserved Best Actress nom at the Golden Globes, the young actor displays a deft comedic sensibility and range (not to mention a killer, energetic midwestern accent) that raises Tracy Flick to icon status. In the following decade, that performance would influence Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin, and Dan Harmon said Flick was the inspiration for Annie Edison on Community.

Then there’s Flick’s nemesis, Mr. M., the most popular and beloved teacher at school. At first, Perrotta didn’t think Broderick would work for the role. But, like he proved three years earlier in The Cable Guy, the actor’s sensitive, soft-spoken demeanor is the perfect comedic foil, and as his life starts spiraling out of control (an extramarital affair here, an election sabotage there), his aww-shucks, nice-guy shell makes the whole mess he creates that much funnier.

Although his role wasn’t as demanding as Witherspoon’s or Broderick’s, Chris Klein also shouldn’t get short shrift. Payne discovered the high school senior when he was scouting locals in Omaha, and in his onscreen debut as the sidelined quarterback-cum-student body hopeful Paul Metzler, Klein amps up the dumbness, walking around the halls with a smile plastered on his face like a clueless kid. That summer, Klein would go on to co-star in American Pie, which did 14 times the box-office business of Election and made him something of a teen-movie celeb.

It Somehow Tackles Taboos and Maintains Its Comic Levity

“Her p—y gets so wet.”

“F–k me, Mr. M.”

Both of those lines are in reference to Tracy. (We know. Yikes.) The first one comes from Tracy’s math teacher, Mr. Novotny (Mark Harelik), who drops the description while admitting his affair to Mr. M. The second is from “Tracy,” during a fantasy Mr. M. has while having sex with his wife. (Garbage, remember?) Payne impressively keeps the film lively and buoyant, even when delving into these dark depths, not letting anyone off the hook morally or taking a tonal left turn.

The nastiness doesn’t stop there. Later, in a delightful bit of verbal sparring, Mr. M. brings up the affair, to which Tracy spits back, “I don’t know what you’re referring to, but maybe if certain older, wiser people hadn’t acted like such little babies and gotten so mushy, then everything would be OK… and I think certain older people, like you and your colleague, shouldn’t be leching after their students, especially when some of them can’t even get their own wives pregnant.” Broderick’s stunned, I’ve-been-bested-by-a-pupil face that follows is priceless.

It Nails the Hell of High School (and A Certain Slice of the Midwest)

Paramount courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by Paramount courtesy Everett Collection)

No matter what side of the desk you’re on, high school can be incredibly… boring. Payne captures that monotony throughout Election, with shots of students spacing out until the bell rings and giving half-assed answers when pushed by their teachers.  As he nears rock bottom, the once-idealistic Mr. M., record-holder for teacher-of-the-year at his school, gets fed up with the routine, too. “‘Mr.McAllister. Mr.McAllister,’” he says, in a voice mocking a whiny student. “‘Can I get an A? Can I get a recommendation? Can I? Can I?’ F–k them.”

The midwest — or, more accurately, Payne’s hometown of Omaha, where the film takes place — isn’t spared, either. Chain restaurants playing depressing pop, cheap cars with dirt-smudged windshields, hyperbolically polite parents, and frosty, grey-skied mornings paint a picture of a very specific mediocrity. (The director also explores his native state, and similar dark-comedic waters, in Citizen Ruth, About Schmidt, Downsizing and, yes, Nebraska.)

It’s Still Politically Relevant

We don’t want to get political here (this is a safe space, people), but can you talk about Election without bringing up, you know, elections? Beyond the aforementioned inspiration for Perrotta’s book, Witherspoon’s turn as Tracy Flick has drawn comparisons to too many real-world politicians to mention over the years. (Hillary Clinton, hands down, is the most referenced, and Payne claims Barack Obama told him Election was his favorite political film.) But it does say something about the film’s longevity (or maybe mankind’s predictability) that critics saw plenty of Election in the most recent U.S. Presidential face-off. Same as it ever was.

Election opened in limited release April 23, 1999

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.


Election (1999)

Adjusted Score: 96764%
Critics Consensus: Election successfully combines dark humor and intelligent writing in this very witty and enjoyable film.
Synopsis: Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a well-liked high school government teacher, can't help but notice that successful student Tracy Flick (Reese... [More]
Directed By: Alexander Payne

Tag Cloud

marvel comics Women's History Month Turner Classic Movies The Purge Trophy Talk spider-man space hispanic television Paramount Plus X-Men crossover joker San Diego Comic-Con ESPN spanish language Freeform The Walking Dead Musicals new zealand christmas movies Heroines anime Opinion Baby Yoda talk show Character Guide Family best Vudu unscripted serial killer Wes Anderson Sundance popular Columbia Pictures Hear Us Out award winner heist movie APB king arthur Lucasfilm Cartoon Network cancelled TV shows movies TV Land TIFF hist Broadway die hard canceled zombie biography TruTV pirates of the caribbean SDCC The CW rt archives TCA SXSW Cosplay dramedy documentaries latino satire Pixar 20th Century Fox a nightmare on elm street Lifetime National Geographic Marvel 90s Binge Guide natural history spinoff canceled TV shows Cannes dreamworks remakes scorecard golden globes high school MCU President Neflix Chilling Adventures of Sabrina trailers suspense black Marvel Studios Mary Poppins Returns Discovery Channel new york police drama halloween tv Food Network Brie Larson Universal Pictures supernatural psychological thriller basketball fresh dark feel good Reality Competition Disney Channel spanish obi wan comic 2015 razzies Pop TV AMC social media james bond Fall TV period drama Endgame 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards aapi Tarantino new star wars movies Star Wars prank psycho reviews international Fox News MTV Tags: Comedy Fargo foreign 94th Oscars biopic Spring TV Television Academy sequels comedies Sony Pictures GIFs crime Box Office women Showtime DC streaming service batman festival HBO Max Rock cars Chernobyl concert interviews worst Lifetime Christmas movies stoner black comedy scene in color japanese RT History worst movies Grammys lord of the rings book adaptation Schedule TCA Winter 2020 Image Comics politics Walt Disney Pictures Exclusive Video Mindy Kaling Avengers Action Funimation vampires summer TV adaptation USA Network MSNBC 2017 Oscars VH1 summer preview Superheroe archives Best Actress deadpool DC Universe Superheroes Music Disney 4/20 TCA Awards mockumentary target children's TV composers CW Seed thriller Amazon travel cooking posters telelvision Mudbound 2018 A24 south america marvel cinematic universe Turner animated directors Year in Review wonder woman scene in color series based on movie 79th Golden Globes Awards 73rd Emmy Awards Nominations movie Apple TV Plus indiana jones stand-up comedy jurassic park Valentine's Day spy thriller LGBT theme song Legendary streaming disaster Oscar FX on Hulu Netflix finale mob versus screen actors guild Nat Geo Shondaland BBC America Tumblr 2021 true crime Rom-Com toronto child's play Spectrum Originals TV renewals japan YA richard e. Grant Toys Marvel Television Animation Acorn TV Calendar live event Native ABC South by Southwest Film Festival Fantasy 72 Emmy Awards what to watch Disney streaming service ghosts football AMC Plus SundanceTV criterion Paramount Network summer TV preview Disney Plus Dark Horse Comics GoT CBS tv talk PBS comic books dc godzilla jamie lee curtis Western doctor who FX Best and Worst Marathons Geeked Week book Star Trek TCM Pet Sematary Epix Anna Paquin comics Christmas cults Best Picture Horror mutant Emmy Nominations Pride Month The Witch discovery Super Bowl Quiz rt labs Amazon Prime Crunchyroll Travel Channel BBC french hidden camera indie Spike Interview game show Photos YouTube Red scary movies Classic Film chucky sequel sag awards superman Bravo Disney+ Disney Plus Teen boxoffice live action Awards stop motion werewolf Comic-Con@Home 2021 Apple Television Critics Association Focus Features strong female leads news Thanksgiving films 007 Mystery romance 45 Tokyo Olympics broadcast Martial Arts docuseries Red Carpet Tubi comic book movie trophy Winners classics BET Awards miniseries twilight festivals DC Comics Creative Arts Emmys obituary History independent BAFTA olympics Elton John Biopics TV One 1990s Captain marvel IFC Films name the review golden globe awards FOX kids Logo zombies emmy awards Comics on TV Esquire ABC Signature justice league kong PaleyFest The Academy laika diversity Drama 2020 Sundance Now Film American Society of Cinematographers screenings Indigenous Universal witnail aliens IMDb TV asian-american Peacock TV fast and furious Pop boxing dexter leaderboard mission: impossible romantic comedy TV movies Amazon Prime Video Best Actor IFC Mary Tyler Moore Starz sopranos science fiction action-comedy Pacific Islander series cinemax blockbuster Certified Fresh 2019 rom-coms Syfy Lionsgate Britbox monster movies Black Mirror free movies dogs Instagram Live cancelled TV series HBO Go TCA 2017 transformers harry potter streaming movies anthology blockbusters YouTube 2016 vs. hispanic heritage month quibi YouTube Premium See It Skip It genre rotten movies we love Film Festival 24 frames Set visit Masterpiece superhero comiccon debate sports 99% kaiju dragons Holidays Hollywood Foreign Press Association Crackle A&E singing competition universal monsters Fox Searchlight Paramount Pictures docudrama robots sitcom TLC The Walt Disney Company ViacomCBS Apple TV+ LGBTQ historical drama Song of Ice and Fire royal family nbcuniversal Tomatazos war Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt First Look revenge game of thrones Best Director Sci-Fi Musical Emmys USA CBS All Access GLAAD Sundance TV franchise TBS PlayStation nfl video cops Rocketman critic resources VOD scary parents teaser Nickelodeon Pirates NBC RT21 target scene in color Shudder cancelled Reality DGA gangster CMT Infographic Country WarnerMedia Stephen King Podcast ID nature Comedy Central MGM ITV Star Wars Celebration binge Hallmark ABC Family ratings slasher Writers Guild of America E! New York Comic Con Ovation BBC One cancelled television video on demand Sony OneApp Hallmark Christmas movies Paramount venice VICE 93rd Oscars comic book movies Summer TNT breaking bad casting Sneak Peek NBA Black History Month First Reviews streamig italian Hulu Watching Series HFPA adenture documentary mcc renewed TV shows HBO king kong NYCC all-time CNN Premiere Dates legend toy story spider-verse Countdown 71st Emmy Awards SXSW 2022 reboot rt labs critics edition young adult adventure Extras halloween Alien Polls and Games El Rey Trailer scene in color film series hollywood critics FXX Awards Tour Comedy green book Rocky E3 crime thriller elevated horror saw know your critic DirecTV Holiday Ellie Kemper Adult Swim Kids & Family Trivia art house cartoon Academy Awards political drama facebook rotten crime drama Netflix Christmas movies WGN slashers Winter TV blaxploitation 21st Century Fox Comic Book Warner Bros. The Arrangement spain technology medical drama BET Video Games OWN Ghostbusters Prime Video Mary poppins cats Election dceu Arrowverse Amazon Studios zero dark thirty australia