Film review: Don't Americans ever grow up?


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
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?