Director Alexander Payne follows up Citizen Ruth, his sharp, almost Sturges-like abortion-wars satire, with Election, a less ambitious film with a lower success rate. Nominally a high school comedy, Election is idiosyncratic enough to avoid the teensploitation trap but not sufficiently single-minded to wind up anywhere especially interesting.
Reference points abound when you’re flirting with a genre as rampant as the teen movie, and for most people Election will simply be, for better or worse, Ferris Bueller’s Midlife Crisis. Matthew Broderick, looking somewhat pudgy and a little the worse for wear, plays Jim McAllister, a teacher on the brink of burnout. Stuck in a fossilized marriage and a career holding pattern, he becomes consumed with hatred for one of his students, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), a monstrously perky overachiever who’s running unopposed for student council president. Hell-bent on Tracy’s downfall, Jim ropes in his own candidate, lovable dumb jock Paul (Keanu clone Chris Klein). A further complication arises when, as a by-product of a love-triangle subplot, Paul’s lesbian sister (Jessica Campbell) enters the fray.
Transposing Tom Perrotta’s novel from small-town New Jersey to his native Omaha (where Citizen Ruth was also set), Payne, with the help of Broderick’s sly performance, evokes the sense of disquiet rippling beneath the surface of a go-nowhere life. Perrotta structured his book as a series of snappy first-person accounts, and Payne preserves this device, dividing narrating duties among Jim and the three candidates. Though he doesn’t have, say, Wes Anderson’s singular comic sensibility, Payne is adept at both low-key absurdity and broad caricature. Making liberal use of freeze-frames, he catches characters in unflattering facial contortions, while a narrator rips into them—it’s cheap and silly, but you laugh regardless.
Perrotta says the three-candidate scenario was inspired by the ’92 presidential race (his book opens with a quote by William Trevor: “The world is the School gone mad”). But the similarities are superficial, and Election buries its high-school-as-a-microcosm allegorical potential under a straight morality tale—one with a fairly stale aftertaste at that. With its sad yet almost uniformly unsympathetic characters, the film never finds a confident tone: it’s pitched as a satire, but seems to have no real targets.
Just how bad is Friends & Lovers? Well, consider the movie’s idea of a joke: “If I have sex with a pregnant woman, is it child abuse?” It’s a measure of writer-director George Haas’s subliterate, submoronic m.o. that he sees fit to follow that wisecrack with the riposte, “Depends on how big your penis is.” Some combination of small penises, small brains, and big male egos must have gone into the making of Friends & Lovers, a movie that operates on a level of such staggering ineptitude that its very existence is offensive.
The film concerns a group of friends who, over one weekend at a ski lodge, have good sex and find true love. It’s a sex farce derived from repellent attitudes toward sex (a hybrid of preadolescent and frat-boy). At one point, one of the actors (Neill Barry, who gets a story credit) flashes his dick at the women, who—evidently stunned by its dimensions—giggle, screech, and run away. Less a movie than a hate crime, Friends & Lovers has a contemptibly stupid view of humans and human interaction. Its misogyny and homophobia are particularly in-your-face. “You’re not a lesbo, are you?” a woman asks her friend. Apparently not, but there is a gay male character, who’s literally virginal. Robert Downey Jr., grotesque as a Bavarian ski instructor, does his best to elevate the movie to the level of train wreck, but the film, unbelievable as this sounds, is beneath him.