03 January 2016

"Pick Paul," A Character-Based Reevaluation of Election

Alexander Payne's Election, a tale of myriad pseudo-protagonists presenting alternative perspectives in the upcoming high school election, demonstrates the intricate balance of unscrupulous characters whose motivations ultimately lie in promoting their own self-interest while pretending, to themselves and to their peers, that the above fails to be true.

The character structure in Election very much strays from any standard, as the alleged protagonist, Tracy Enid Flick (Reese Witherspoon), a preppy high school student seeking the office of student council president for her final year, undergoes an emotional breakdown, tearing down nearly every election poster in the school. Following that fiasco, her teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), pursues an extramarital affair, even abandoning his own class to attend to it, discarding both his marriage and his professional passion.

Indeed, as soon as each major character earns enough attention to merit the title "protagonist," he or she betrays his or her own morals, as well as the audience, leaving the audience to support the alternative candidate for office, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) who potentially embodies Tracy's antagonist, but more accurately is her foil, providing the story with an easy-going, modest, caring young man to compete with Tracy's high-strung and stubborn selfishness.

Only tangentially, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), Paul's sister, solely invested in ditching school and chasing girls, comes to represent not the character whom the audience necessarily roots for, but certainly the one who represents the majority of the audience as someone just trying to get through her four years.

And thus, the audience is ultimately left with a group of misfits and outlaws to watch pursue the status quo.

Arising from the chaos and the controversy is, as expected, Tracy—friendless and unfulfilled. Moreover, as each character drifts away from Omaha, only Paul and Tammy seem to find genuine joy in their everyday lives. Indeed, if Tracy is Election's protagonist, then the story is that of lifelong failure under the mask of developing economic and political success. Furthermore, if she is, as Witherspoon describes, a "female political archetype," then it is only at the expense of movement-driven, genuine people, such as her foil.

Ultimately, Election ameliorates our ready evidence that while nice guys may finish last, they often compete in a different race altogether—a happier, healthier, more social one. And, striving for that league may be the greatest journey of all.

Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) faces Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), her competitor in the race for Student Council President.
Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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