In Election, Alexander Payne's vividly drawn and cutting satire, the campaign for president of a uniformly white, spirit-crushing suburban high school (named after George Washington Carver, of all people) is meaningless, ruled by voter apathy and won by career-minded political animals. These elections are designed to give students a taste of the political process, which they do all too well: Were candidates not allowed to hand out 480 customized cupcakes on election day, it would be just like the real thing. As an active and conscientious teacher, Matthew Broderick tries to break the cycle by sabotaging the uncontested campaign of a ruthlessly ambitious young climber, played by Reese Witherspoon. He encourages the more popular Chris Klein, a football hero and agreeably earnest dope, to run against her, but his plan goes awry when Klein's lesbian sister, Jessica Campbell, joins the race on a platform guaranteed to energize the populace: doing away with student council altogether. A detailed and bracingly funny advance on Tom Perrotta's brisk little novel, Election skewers the sickly charade of the American political process while mustering up some compassion for those caught under its thumb. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor, who previously collaborated on the under-appreciated Citizen Ruth, add shades of dimension to characters who might have otherwise seemed merely grotesque. Witherspoon's broad, obsessive comic performance is bound to get the most attention, but Broderick does the best work of his career, finding an affecting spot between the all-purpose defiance of Ferris Bueller and the put-upon foil of his recent work. This underlying humanity keeps Election from collapsing into the fashionable cynicism of such lesser political satires as Wag The Dog, which glibly assume there's nothing left to salvage.
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