Review: Election

Election (1999)
Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne.

I first saw Election before I was aware of Alexander Payne as a director, enjoying it for what I considered Reese Witherspoon’s breakout performance and Matthew Broderick’s almost Willie Lomanesque portrayal of a well-meaning teacher who lets things get away from him. I was also only a few years into a teaching career and too green to relate as strongly to Broderick’s Jim McAllister as I do now.

What strikes me most now is how despicable each of the main characters is, with only Chris Klein’s Paul Metzler truly acting with best intentions. A football star injured in a skiing accident, his prospects for a great senior year seem wrecked until history teacher (and Student Council advisor) McAllister encourages him to run for student body president. McAllister’s reasons could pass for sympathetic and encouraging if not tainted by a dislike for the only declared candidate at the time, Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick. Tracy is the classic overachiever, driven by some desperate need to be excellent and successful according to all the usual academic metrics. She pretty much owns the student council, and Paul is reluctant to set foot in her territory, but at McAllister’s urging, he cluelessly gives it a go. Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) is furious with Paul because he’s dating the girl she loves, so she launches her own campaign for the presidency, delivering a speech in which she promises to abolish the student council as her first act.

Why is McAllister so resentful of Tracy? The reasons he offers—that she’s the sort who does anything to get what she wants, and that she should learn before she graduates that this is no way to behave—are weak, and seasoned educators like him should know that what he proposes never works. He’s also obviously bitter about the career-ending affair his best friend and colleague had with Tracy, even going so far as to suggest she was complicit in his friend’s downfall. She is, but she’s a child, and no reasonable teacher blames the student in a situation like this. The dismantling of McAllister’s career and marriage are not the results necessarily of bad thoughts by a bad man: I can certainly sympathize with his impulses in both areas. He is despicable because he cannot rise above these impulses and act as his better self. I imagine that in marriage, as in secondary education, one must be able to do so every day.

Payne does excellent work with this film. A lot of the playfulness is gimmicky, such as the voice-overs by multiple characters, but it works really well, especially with the freeze-frame effect he uses as his narrators break into the action to explain things. His fondness for casting non-actors in supporting roles lends super believability to the world in which the film is set. Teachers, students, and support staff move, talk, sit, and dress the way they do in a real school, and Payne’s decision to film in a real school during the school year is another plus. McAllister drives a blue Ford Festiva, a tiny car for a small man, but shoot. He’s a teacher, and that’s a reasonable car for anyone living a teacher’s life. I know, because I drove a red one.

As he does with Hawaii in The Descendants several years later, Payne offers views of Nebraska that we don’t see in most films, the everyday boringness of a strip mall or roadside motel, for example. When McAllister drives from home to work, the scenery behind him is dull, flat, and concrete, like the stuff most of us see every day on our own commutes. Black comedies tend to be somewhat outrageous, and Election qualifies, but because it’s rooted in so much realness, it feels a lot less fantastic and a lot more believable.

While it has a lot going for it, the film falls just shy of greatness because of one thing it doesn’t do well at all: sympathize with Tracy Flick. There is a short moment near the end, where during a voice-over, Tracy gives us a hint of what her relationship with her former math teacher means to her. It’s not enough, though, and through most of the film, it’s too easy to see her just as a hyper-ambitious, self-serving annoying young woman. We sympathize with everyone else throughout the film, but Tracy only gets that brief instance when she reminds us of how a grown man who was supposed to keep her safe instead took advantage of her, and how her vulnerabilities might have something to do with her behavior. Nobody seems to weep for Tracy Flick, which is how she would want it, but she is the real victim in this story full of victims.

8/10
81/100

Review: About Schmidt

About Schmidt (2002)
Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermott Mulroney, Kathy Bates, June Squibb. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne.

I’ve often said About Schmidt is an utterly forgettable movie, mostly because although I saw it in the theater in 2002 when it was released, I could remember almost nothing about it. There were a Winnebago and a naked Kathy Bates in a hot tub, but if a third plot element were the question in Final Jeopardy, I’d have gone home a loser. So in my review of (and catchup on) Alexander Payne’s directorial oeuvre, I was looking forward to this one because it seemed almost like seeing something new, while also not looking forward to it because I was pretty sure my not remembering it was precisely the correct response.

I was right on both expectations. By itself, it is a forgettable film, setting up some kind of emotional equation it never solves, like those reactions in tenth-grade chemistry you have to balance, connecting this oxygen atom to that hydrogen atom and making it all even out. Examined as part of Payne’s filmography, which was my intention this time, it’s a lot more interesting. Although plot-wise it has almost nothing in common with Election, the film Payne directed just before it, or Sideways, the film he directed just after, it has interesting thematic and film-making similarities.

Primary among them is Payne’s interest in representing his home state of Nebraska in a way that seems to be uniquely his. The opening shot is mimicry of the first moments in Citizen Kane: from a distance, across a vast, flat cityscape, we see a lone high-rise. Subsequent shots bring the building closer, seen from different angles but always with the tower occupying the same place in the frame, growing larger and larger, until we are inside the building and see a bored Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) at his empty desk, watching the second-hand of the clock tick off the final moments of his professional career. Omaha is no Xanadu, and Warren R. Schmidt is no Charles Foster Caine.

Matthew Broderick in Election, Paul Giamatti in Sideways, and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt all play small men living small lives, the first two in the middle, and the last near his end. We drop into Jim McAllister’s life just as he’s making his idiotic choices, into Miles Raymond’s sometime after, as he’s still dealing with the consequences, and into Warren Schmidt’s as he discovers that his mistakes were made long ago, without his being aware of them, as he earned professional success only to discover that a life’s work has amounted to nearly nothing. It’s a good idea, but I have difficulty understanding Payne’s intention. How am I meant to feel about Schmidt’s journey and destination, by the time this film concludes?
(spoilers in this paragraph only)

Schmidt expresses his concern about his daughter’s marriage, in a well-done scene with Hope Davis, where she says something like, “Oh, now you care about my decisions?” We don’t know exactly what’s come between her and her father, but it’s easy enough to imagine that it’s the stuff that happens to many of us in our own families. So far, so good. But then Schmidt offers a toast at the reception, at first a bit awkward, but then gracious and seemingly heartfelt. Are we supposed to take his words at face value? It’s difficult to tell whether he’s had a change of heart or is merely playing a part. Cut to the final scene, where he’s sitting home alone at his desk, certain that his life has amounted to nothing. He’s been writing letters to Ndugu, a young boy he’s sponsoring through one of those charities, and there is a letter from his teacher, telling him how much Ndugu has appreciated his gifts, along with one of Ndugu’s drawings, a crude representation of a man holding hands with a boy. Schmidt begins to sob, and the film is over.

Is this a moment of despair, or is it a moment of redemption? I could tolerate not knowing if there were evidence enough to support either conclusions, but there isn’t. I suppose the stronger case can be made for despair, but there’s been enough good interaction during Schmidt’s trip to imply that he’s got a lot of interesting living to do, if he decides to live it. Another possibility is that Schmidt is finally taking a moment to grieve properly, but I think he has his moment the night he sleeps on the roof of his RV, and our last image of him should be more positive.

Now that I’ve seen this film three times (once in the theater, twice on DVD) I’m much fonder of it than I once was, but it’s really no better a film. Seven years ago, when I first set up my Criticker account, I ranked it 66/100; I think 60 is more like it now.

6/10
60/100

Know Payne

I’m having a personal Alexander Payne festival.  Started with Citizen Ruth, which I’d never seen, and followed it with About Schmidt and Election, both of which I saw but really didn’t remember.  I’ve got The Descendants and Nebraska next, both of which I remember quite well.  I really don’t need to see Sideways again, since I’ve seen it at least thirty times, but I probably will anyway.

I wasn’t aware that Payne has a few actors he likes to work with.  They’re an interesting group.  I was aware that his home state of Nebraska is the setting for several of his films (all but The Descendants and Sideways). something that definitely contributes to his aesthetic.

He’s an interesting director, and I’m enjoying revisting all this work.  I don’t think I’ve noticed yet any signature moves, although at least three of his films ends with his main character completely alone.

I was super disappointed that About Schmidt didn’t come with a director’s commentary, but there is an extensive collection of deleted scenes, with written notes by Payne, and that helped a lot with getting a grip on his thinking.  I’m hoping I’ll find time tomorrow for the commentary on Election.

Review: Citizen Ruth

Citizen Ruth (1996)
Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, Tippi Hedren, Burt Reynolds, Alicia Witt, Diane Ladd. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne.

Ruth is a single indigent woman, probably in her late twenties, arrested one day when she’s found unconscious after huffing paint. She’s been arrested many times, and has had children removed from her custody, and now the judge has had enough. He’s asking the prosecutor to try her for felony endangerment of her fetus, prophetically uttering, “I hope I’m not setting a precedent here.” Before she is sent to lockup, the judge tells her that he’ll reduce the charges if Ruth will abort the baby.

At her lowest moment, she asks God for help, and within a minute, she is joined in her holding cell by a group of anti-abortion protestors. They see Ruth’s plight and offer to take care of her, hoping to counsel her away from the abortion. Now Ruth is a symbol for a cause, but do her new friends care about her, or only about her unborn child and the message its birth will send to pro-choicers?

When she spends some time with the pro-choicers, she asks them a question they don’t have an answer for: do they still care about her freedom to choose even if she chooses to have the baby? As long as she’s not being coerced into having it, can she still be the symbol they wish her to be?

There’s a little bit of stereotyping in presenting the people on both sides of this battle, but darn it if it isn’t spot-on stereotyping. I recognize and sympathize with people in each of the camps, and if they seem a bit cartoonish, they aren’t really that exaggerated. The film doesn’t seem to take a position on either side of the debate, but it does make the point that Ruth, who can charitably be called not the brightest of women, knows a lot more about what she wants than anyone’s giving her credit for, and that in their eagerness to gain ground in this tug o’ war, they aren’t taking the time to understand the person they’re tugging at.

Citizen Ruth has a lot going for it: a thoughtful and creative script, some excellent acting by Laura Dern, and some really good laughs from unexpected places. Despite all this, it’s still a slightly unsatisfying film. For all its effort to make Ruth a real character among real people in a real social struggle, it doesn’t do very much to develop anyone else as more than a person serving a cause, except maybe the teenaged daughter of one of her pro-life patrons (Alicia Witt) and the bodyguard for her pro-choice supporters (M. C. Gainey), so that what’s really mild stereotyping comes across as full-blown, thoughtless stereotyping with no imagination. A film that begs its characters to get to know the person huffing that paint should make some effort to present those characters also as real people.

It’s still worth a look for its daring premise and for Dern’s very funny choices. This is Alexander Payne’s first full-length feature, and it feels like a starter kit for what came later, and it’s so far his only movie not to be nominated for an Academy Award. Not a great film, but promising enough.

6/10
62/100

Review: Paris, je t’aime

Paris, je t’aime (2006)
Margo Martindale, Nick Nolte, Steve Buscemi, Juliet Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Elijah Wood, Olga Kurylenko, Emily Mortimer, Alexander Payne, Natalie Portman, Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands, Gérard Depardieu. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Alexander Payne, Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuarón, and others. (English and French, with English subtitles)

parisA tourist in Paris unintentionally gets involved in a young couple’s spat when he makes eye contact in the metro station. An EMT tends to a bleeding man whom she doesn’t realize she’s met before. An American man escorts a much younger woman down the street, begging her to trust him. These are three of the eighteen very short films that make up Paris, je t’aime. Each short is set in a different Parisian arrondissement (a word I just learned), each written and directed by a different team.

jeFilms like this miss more often than they hit, but here is one that mostly gets it right. When you only have five minutes to tell a story, it seems you rely more on situation and pacing than on characters, dialogue, or plot, but characters, dialogue, and plot can make the difference between interesting and moving. Taken individually, not every short is moving, but most of them contribute to an overall stirring of feelings about (and feelings of) love. I especially like the sections directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Oliver Schmitz, Alexander Payne, and Paul Mayeda Berges with Gurinder Chadha (who directed Bend it Like Beckham together).

t'aimeThe acting is solid all around, but I was especially taken with Margo Martindale as a middle-aged American woman narrating her visit to Paris in an American’s schoolbook French. Martindale is an actor I’ve only recently discovered, and in this film, she is the best I’ve seen her.

Although I have mixed feelings about his chapter, Bob Hoskins is another standout: I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything except Who Framed Roger Rabbit, so his dignified English accent and bearing were a really nice surprise.

pjtIn Wes Craven’s scene, Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell do a nice job with a lovers’ argument in the cemetery where Oscar Wilde is buried, when Wilde’s grave inspires one to break up with the other, and Wilde himself seems to inspire the other to make it work. The scene is maybe the best put-together in the film, where everything seems to work together to shine on its own and contribute to the bigger picture.

If you like the film, see it twice. It’s a movie that rewards a second viewing, and if you see it on a DVD which includes the making-of featurette, see that too.

8/10
83/100