A Monica in Training … Cronenberg Drills Another Orifice

A Monica in Training

Since every downward trend produces at least one optimistic side effect, I knew if we waited patiently enough, the current plague of teenage flicks would eventually offer an exception that people over the age of 15 could sit through without suffering brain damage. Election is that film–a rare excursion into the world of kids with hormonal dysfunctions, which a few grown-ups seem to occupy as well. It’s no masterpiece, but considering the junk that gluts today’s movie screens, it has wit and intelligence, as well as another welcome opportunity to enjoy the talent and charm of the enchanting Reese Witherspoon.

Election is about a group of people in Omaha whose lives are altered drastically by the unusual events surrounding the high school election of a student body president. Matthew Broderick is seen to better advantage than usual as Jim McAllister, a teacher of history, civics and current events who, for 12 years, has been seriously dedicated to the teaching profession. He loves his job and cherishes his influence on the shaping of his students’ young minds and their potential to become model citizens, but by everybody’s standards, he’s something of a nerd. McAllister is a low, squatty man, shaped like an English muffin, who has been married for nine years to a woman who is a bigger drone than he is.

Mr. Broderick himself is also a real mess. His body seems to have melted. Later, when his character finds himself, he has a completely different body, with definition and tone. Maybe he’s just a good actor. At any rate, in a movie that depends on perfect casting, he’s a believable doofus.

Ms. Witherspoon is equally perfect in the role of Mr. M.’s most annoying student, a scheming little Barbie doll named Tracy Flick. She’s a smart, ambitious, hard-working, impeccably dressed, well-organized and tireless overachiever who makes straight A’s and raises her hand before everyone else in class every time a question is asked, like one of those despicable eggheads on Jeopardy . She is also having a hot, secret affair with the geometry teacher, who loses his job and wife in the ensuing scandal. (In her words, she’s on a mission–to save these poor schmucky teachers from their squareness.)

When she runs unopposed by her indifferent classmates for president, Mr. M. seizes the opportunity to teach a real lesson in ethics and morals by encouraging a more democratic election (the idea comes to him in the middle of the night, while he’s watching a porno flick as his wife sleeps). Spicing up the competition, to Tracy’s fury, he recruits Paul Metzler, a moronic jock with a broken leg (sweetly played by Chris Klein) and Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a budding lesbian who is in love with her brother’s girlfriend Lisa. To Tracy’s horror, the election now has three candidates–the brilliant but friendless Tracy, the brainless but popular Paul, and the rebellious Tammy, whose campaign platform of total anarchy incites the student body to riot fever and standing ovations. While Tracy sets out to eliminate her competition, Mr. Broderick forgets his own sense of morals (seducing the wife of the disgraced geometry teacher) and ethics (destroying ballots so Tracy will lose by one vote). In the campus chaos that follows, punishing lessons are learned by everyone involved that will change the trajectory of their lives forever.

What sounds like a simple teenage flick has such astute writing (by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor) and such savvy direction (by Mr. Payne) that it piles revelation upon revelation in a dizzying thrust, providing many surprises and more than the usual number of hilarious situations. The film is well served by an impeccable cast, but the irony of watching Ms. Witherspoon’s slick little operator outsmart everyone else like a Monica Lewinsky in training is perversely entertaining. You know she’s going places, and she’s funny and shrewd and shameless about it. The Monica parallels are inescapable, but rising early to bake and frost 480 customized cupcakes for her voters is a memorable moment in screen comedy that makes you think about Hillary Clinton. After years pass, Tracy’s still on the rise, and now, living in Washington, D.C., she is seen climbing into the limousine of a senator–and she’s not delivering pizza.

I don’t know why so many desperate wannabe byliners writing think pieces in slick glossies insist on listing Reese Witherspoon as a current Hollywood Teen Queen. She’s in a class by herself. Playing obnoxious, button-nosed twerps ( Pleasantville ) or sexy, pubescent sluts ( Freeway ) with equal aplomb, she holds her characters to the light like bugs on the end of a stick, explores every avenue, and acts circles around everyone else in her age bracket. She was the best thing in Cruel Intentions , a teenage flick with a narrow scope, and in Election , a broader film with other pleasant elements, you can’t take your mind off her even when she’s off-screen.

More good news about Election is the way it appeals on several levels simultaneously, providing entertainment value for all ages. It’s as much about the career crisis faced by adults struggling to find themselves as it is about teenagers with some growing up to do. But right in the center of things, never out of focus, Reese Witherspoon adds a ballast that is ageless. She can run for office in my neck of the woods any time she wants. My vote is guaranteed.

Cronenberg Drills Another Orifice

David Cronenberg, unquestionably the world’s most seriously deranged film director, has a new bucket of swill to peddle. Crash is still the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but now a load of vomitous rubbish called eXistenZ (the spelling is as pretentious as the movie itself) is ready for an early funeral. This rancid, low-rent freak show about what happens to an alleged artist, forced into hiding after her name appears on a hit list, is, according to the depraved Canadian director, “inspired by an interview with Salman Rushdie.” Mr. Rushdie should stay out of hiding long enough to sue.

The alleged artist in this case is the kinky designer of something called eXistenZ, described as the daring, organic system which, when downloaded into humans, accesses their central nervous systems, transporting them on a wild ride in and out of reality. The game changes every time it is played, adapting to the individuals who are playing it. As a result, you have to play it to find out why you’re playing.

The perpetrator of this monstrous insanity, which depends on guinea pigs called slave pods, is a zombie named Allegra, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress with a nose for this kind of garbage. “The world of games is in a trance,” she says. So is this movie. To become a player in this $38 million game, a “game pod” grown from fertilized amphibian eggs stuffed with DNA and resembling a human kidney with a breast nipple must be inserted into a port plug in the player’s spinal cord. Ouch, you say, but you ain’t heard nothing yet.

When the catatonic Allegra finds herself targeted for assassination by rival lunatics from a competing game called transCendenZ, she is whisked into seclusion by a market trainee (Jude Law)–a situation that opens doors for all sorts of inane futuristic dialogue. “Where’s your bio-port? Don’t tell me you’ve never been fitted!” “I’ve been dying to play your games, but I have this phobia about having my body penetrated,” says Mr. Law. “I mean surgically!” If this nightmare wasn’t so sick and gruesome, I’d swear it was a comedy.

Once the sadistic installation is completed, the game begins and the big payoff is that you get to become schizophrenic. The two stars are transported, after much senseless talk of antenna upgrades, range finders and shimmering morphs, to a trout farm with a Chinese restaurant where Mr. Law kills a Chinese waiter for serving the organs of two-headed amphibians and mutated reptiles in his soup. “You’ve just got a bad case of first-time user anxiety,” says Ms. Leigh, adjusting her Barbarella gun that fires poisoned human teeth.

The movie is crap, but what else do you expect from a director whose characters shot up with roach repellent in Naked Lunch ? At the end of eXistenZ , I was the only person left in the screening room. It’s the cinematic equivalent of germ warfare, or two balcony tickets to Cats .

A Literal Big Sleep

To finish off a vile week, there is Goodbye Lover , an idiotic attempt to copy one of those films noirs of the 40′s about a scheming femme fatale who kills off all the men in her life for their insurance. Patricia Arquette, who makes more bad movies than Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bridget Fonda and Natasha Gregson-Wagner put together, plays the femme, who is married to an unstable drunk who works in P.R. (Dermot Mulroney), and sleeping with his brother, an executive who acts out his sexual fantasies tied to bedposts, doing weird things with handcuffs and olives (Don Johnson).

Before she can murder them both and blame it on a serial killer, this scheming tramp is thwarted by the office bimbo (Mary-Louise Parker), who is also secretly married to Mr. Mulroney’s drunk, and a butch cop (Ellen DeGeneres) who cracks ghastly one-liners after every murder. “How can you be so goddamn cynical?” asks Ms. DeGeneres’ Bible-spouting sidekick. “Because somebody killed Bambi’s mom,” she cracks.

This is supposed to pass for humor, but the only laughs involve Ms. Arquette’s character’s ludicrous attempts to do away with the entire cast while singing along to the Sound of Music soundtrack album. It’s a sleazy, wooden mess that seems to have been made up while the cameras were rolling. Abysmal direction by Roland Joffé doesn’t help, but not even a Kubrick or a Spielberg could turn Patricia Arquette into a sexpot. She’s as erotic as a day-old bowl of warm buttermilk.