Film review: Don't Americans ever grow up?

Election

Director: Alexander Payne Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick (103 mins; 15)

As far as I'm concerned, the most pertinent and pithy definition of the American film industry, as apt now as when it was originally coined in 1935, was Colette's in La Jumelle noire, a collection of her journalistic articles and essays. Hollywood, she said, was "a kindergarten of prodigies". A Kindergarten of Prodigies! What a marvellous title for a book, fictional or non-fictional, on the current cinema, and what a perfect headline for a review of Alexander Payne's .

The movie's setting is not a kindergarten but a Nebraskan high school, George Washington Carver High. The election in question is for school council president and, at the start, the only, because unopposed, candidate is Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). As her uneuphonious name none too subtly intimates (is there a pun there on Dick Tracy?), she's a smug little fussbudget, a meddling, scheming and, of course, as though it went without saying, physically unprepossessing know-all, given to stamping her dainty feet when crossed.

One thing Tracy doesn't know, however, is that she has made an enemy in Jim McAllister (an unexpectedly beefy Matthew Broderick). This McAllister is a dedicated if frazzled teacher for whom, in both his professional and his private life, diminishing returns have begun to set in with a vengeance. Since he simply can't stomach the prospect of his bete noire drunk on presidential power, he proceeds, at first honestly, then dishonestly, to connive at her downfall, persuading two other students to enter the race. These are Paul, a sexy, sweettempered lunk (Chris Klein), and his adopted (but why exactly?) sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), an embittered lesbian whose campaign slogans are "Who cares?" and "What does it matter anyway?"

, which had uniformly terrific reviews on its American release but did no business at all, belongs to a relatively new category in the American cinema, a category I would codify thus: comedies-that-are-too- intelligent-for-mainstream-audiences. Warren Beatty's Bulworth was one of the first, Wes Anderson's Rushmore one of the most recent. So why a kindergarten of prodigies?

Because the so-called intelligence of these movies (of which the Beatty is by far the best) is precisely that of a kindergarten prodigy. Their makers may be adept, at times terrifyingly adept, at certain crucial but cramped skills - snappy, literate dialogue, instant narrative legibility, the caustic observation of human fallibities - but they would appear to have had as much experience of life, real life, as a precocious three- year-old.

Just like Rushmore, is cartoonishly one-dimensional and crammed with appealing but textureless adolescent faces. One's eyes are never obliged to search for what might be the focal point of any given shot (as was true of the comedies of Keaton or Tati) because one soon learns that it's invariably in the dead centre of the screen, as plain as the nose on one's face: symmetry is Payne's concept, his sole concept, of visual composition. On a narrative level, too, everything is laboriously spelt out for us, as though an invisible blackboard pointer were hovering over the screen. We're given nothing to do but watch the movie.

It's not even that amusing. A very funny comedy used to be one which made you laugh a lot; these days it's one which makes you smile a lot. Even by so miserably diminished a standard, though, fails the test. Its fondest comedic trope is a conceit which is now so whiskery that it's guaranteed a prominent place in every anthology of favourite movie cliches. Example: Paul frets over Tracy's reaction to some reversal of fortune in her campaign. Replies McAllister, "Don't worry about Tracy. She'll be fine." Cut to Tracy weeping her heart out.

As for the characters, they've been stamped once and for all with a set of droll behavioural traits from which they're prohibited from deviating by as much as a millimetre. At the beginning of the movie Witherspoon is Miss Bossy-Boots incarnate, Klein the Platonic archetype of the dumb, well-hung jock, Broderick everyone's off-the-top-of-the-head notion of an able, amiable schoolmaster starting to fray at the edges; at the end of the movie, ditto in every case. In a narrative which can fairly be described as incident-packed, nothing has happened to prompt us to revise or refine our initial impressions of them. Only Campbell (excellent) is permitted to evolve, to disturb and puzzle us, to display evidence of an interior life, but even she, poor girl, has been saddled with that crassly infallible signifier of high-school movies, a disfiguring set of teeth braces. And her schoolmates have as much depth and animation as the cut-out kids of South Park.

Satire? Forget it. Yes, if you half-close your eyes (and ears), the movie can be interpreted as a political lampoon, and one reviewer has even suggested that "there's more than a whiff of Monica Lewinsky about Ms Flick" (a whiff, granted, but certainly not more than one). The problem is that, the high school having long since exhausted its never very thought-provoking potential as a microcosm of the wider world, has absolutely nothing to tell us that we didn't already know about the corruption and chicanery endemic to the American political process.

One last thing. If there are any fellow writers or critics out there who share my opinion that A Kindergarten of Prodigies would make a marvellous title for a book, sorry, but I've already bagged it.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor