Film review: Don't Americans ever grow up?
Sunday 26 September 1999
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.
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