It's lonely at the top: Reese Witherspoon in Election

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Open Your Eyes
Lagoon Cinema

Like most comedies set in high school, Alexander Payne's Election diddles intractable adolescent social categories: prom king, ambitious goodie-goodie, burnout, loser. As in Never Been Kissed, the latter is an adult. History teacher Jim McAllister (a blurry Matthew Broderick) may walk and talk like a grown-up, but he's a teenage wasteland at heart. Indeed, like Welcome to the Dollhouse, Payne's tale of a hard-fought student election offers its characters no transformative transition into a freer, postadolescent world. Election wants those well-worn high school stereotypes to stand for general archetypes in the American game of Getting Ahead: Like hounds after a mechanical rabbit, victors and losers alike are doomed to chase the American ideal of success (in business or love) and never catch it.

Neither Payne's symbolism nor his cynicism is exactly novel. Back in 1983, Risky Business colored the model high school student as quick-witted venture capitalist. And Todd Solondz beat Payne to the karaoke mic for rounds of the Replacements' "Fuck School" and "Unsatisfied." Whether you prefer Election to the similarly themed Happiness depends, I think, on your appreciation of Payne's more "realistic" caricatures over Solondz's satirical extremities. In Citizen Ruth, Payne's first, more sharply focused film, he garnered audience support for Laura Dern's glue-sniffing, feral survivor by placing her between roaringly self-righteous abortion activists, pro and con. Election plays its four suburban combatants against each other, allowing them to defend their aggressions and display their wounds via alternating voiceovers.

Ruthless would-be president Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), personifying the notion of Manifest Destiny, stresses the personal isolation brought on by constant overachievement. Rationalizing his attempts to block this little blond bulldozer, McAllister shows how Tracy's will-to-power grievously exacerbates the greasy flatness of his days. The popular, dim-bulb jock (Chris Klein), whom McAllister convinces to run against Tracy, worries about the unfortunate with the detached charity of the born-privileged. His "unfortunate" lesbian adoptive sister (Jessica Campbell)--also running, as an anarchic Jesse-ish dark horse--reveals an obsessive need for affection. Election capably mocks this foursome at the same time that it aims to drum up empathy for their clueless desperation. The film can be funny in a queasy sort of way. (Typically Payne-ful moment: McAllister nervously bathing his balls before a lovers' tryst.) But the characters' hurts are simply too clichéd to matter.

Solondz is sick-making, too, but I'll take his unremitting bad mood over Payne's sympathetic "realism" any day. Especially because some characters--i.e., the men--appear more understood than others. There are three Election subplots in which women fuck and betray duped men (once is just current events--but three times?). Petty McAllister is finally so abused--by lovers, insects, his own insecurity--that you can't help feeling more for him than for Tracy, with her stock "lonely at the top" rap. Every time Tracy goes ballistic, the soundtrack cues tribal wailing. (Whoever decided that this sound signifies "primitive" truly needs to go back to high school.) Speaking as the friend of a former pushy student body president with XX chromosomes, I suspect that the director is as freaked out by female ambition as his passive-aggressive history teacher. And just as willing to sneakily stack the cards against it.

Alejandro Amenabar's sinuous thriller Open Your Eyes concentrates on a Job figure at least as tortured as McAllister. When the movie begins, Cesar (Eduardo Noriega) is a pretty Spanish playboy with plenty of cash. While his less-endowed buddy Pelajo (Fele Martinez) looks on enviously, Cesar tastes and tosses ladies like Sees Candies. At his birthday party, Cesar abandons his clingy lover Nuria (Najwa Nimri) for Pelajo's lovely date Sofia (Penelope Cruz). They sleep together without screwing, and Cesar thinks he has found his soul mate. Yet when Nuria offers sex the next morning, outside Sofia's apartment, he goes with her. Vengeful Nuria drives off an embankment, killing herself and disfiguring Cesar.

From here, the narrative goes haywire. Every time Cesar wakes up, it seems he's in a different dream: Sofia still adores him in one reverie but rejects him in the next; sometimes his face is healed; sometimes Sofia transforms into Nuria. The one constant is Cesar's petulant, childish assertion that he somehow deserves privilege without responsibility. It's no wonder, then, that Sofia starts to wear Nuria's face as she becomes the "old," familiar lover. The film itself leans hard on that rapidly obsolescing whew!-it's-just-virtual-reality trope. Still, Amenabar finds startlingly evocative images in Cesar's (moral) deformity--and the masks he wears to conceal it. And there's something far richer than cheap satire in Cesar's last vision: A man stepping away from his comfortable prejudices into the unknown.

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