Likability is no substitute for understandability when it comes to crafting character. So often it feels that film discourse mistakes the former for the latter and disregards the latter when the former is present. It feels like once or twice a month Film And TV Twitter will lobby the same criticism at a new blockbuster or the returning season of a TV show, that being that, “______ was so unlikable!” as though it’s a failure on the part of the writers. Very rarely is it considered that the idea that the unlikability they’re referencing is intentional.
Likability is overrated. I don’t need to like a character to understand them, and personally I find that I’m actually far more prone to like a character — even if they’re acting a damn fool — if I can understand why they’re acting a damn fool. When I blew through Stranger Things 3 last week it never bothered me that Hopper and Joyce were acting like a couple of dumbasses throughout those eight episodes because it seemed abundantly clear to me not only that I was supposed to notice that they were acting like a couple of dumbasses, but also why they were acting like a couple of dumbasses. Their behavior tracked with my understanding of who these people are three seasons into this show and, as a result, not only was I not annoyed by the constant bickering; I was pretty actively amused by it.
Anyways, 10 minutes into Criterion’s beautiful restoration of Alexander Payne’s 1999 high school movie/political dramedy Election (see it on Amazon) I realized every member of the core cast just totally sucks. Utter drags. Real garbage heap, scum of the earth, asslords of trash mountain types.
I hated them. But I also couldn’t help but love them.
I hated Tracy Flick long before she revealed herself to be a Republican. Once a character singlehandedly defines an archetype it feels like there’s very little left for a writer to say about them but, oh man, there’s so much to say about Tracy Flick even if it’s all repetition.
Like, four line readings into her performance as Tracy you know exactly why Reese Witherspoon became one of the great performers of her generation. It’s actually wild to realize that Elle Woods of Legally Blonde actually happened after Tracy considering the ways in which Tracy feels like Elle’s Negaverse doppelganger. Tracy is all of the relentless determination and hard work that makes Elle such a vital role model almost two decades after she first graced screens without any of the warmth or compassion. In their place is a ruthlessness, a predatory cunning far more resembling a recurring character on Veep than a high school overachiever. I feel like a marker of a great character is if you react to them the same way the characters around them do and the moment when Tracy tells Matthew Broderick’s Mr. McAllister that she knows he’s failed in his efforts to conceive a child with his wife I made a face I can only describe as Just Saw The Red Wedding For The First Time-esque.
Matthew Broderick in ‘Election.’ (Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures)
A character like Tracy would age far more poorly in a less thoughtful movie. The way she’s written deftly avoids the out-and-out misogyny that can come with painting ambitious women as evil harpies. Election instead gives you about 700 reasons to hate Tracy that are far more significant than the fact that she’s a know-it-all who feels that it’s her destiny to be class president. Her reaction to Chris Klein’s Paul entering the race as her primary competitor is actually pretty justified (Paul is a very amiable idiot, but more on him later) and likely resonates with any woman or POC who has had to watch an under-qualified white dude fail upwards. No, the real venom comes out in her reaction to Tammy entering the race.
Tammy’s entrance into the race is an act of aggression against her oblivious brother and when the time comes to give her campaign speech in front of the entire student body she, rather than offering reasons they should vote for her, denounces the very concept of student government as arcane and useless before encouraging students to not vote at all. She’s met with thunderous applause.
(Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures)
Tracy, predictably, is outraged by this (she throws some nasty language Tammy’s way via internal monologue). However, it’s notable that Tracy is every bit part of the problem Tammy has pointed out. We never actually learn anything about Tracy’s policy or goals throughout her campaign. She’s a player in the theatre of politics and you can’t help but wonder if part of the reason she’s so eager to prove Tammy wrong is because she knows Tammy is right.
The other side of the Tracy coin is Broderick’s Mr. McAllister. Early on in the first act, he’s recounting Tracy’s affair with his best friend and fellow teacher Dave Novotny (oh, forgot to mention the part where Tracy had an affair with a teacher). Despite their friendship, McAllister professes that Dave is something of an overgrown man-child – hence the affair with a student. McAllister, in doing this, seems to look to distance himself from Dave’s immaturity and toxicity. He then spends the entire rest of the movie showing us just how similar the two of them are.
(Photo Credit: Criterion Collection)
From his wholly inappropriate grudge against Tracy to the affair he instigates with Dave’s ex-wife, McAllister is a worm. The only difference between him and Dave is that McAllister is smart enough to put some effort into pretending he’s not. We know exactly who he is from his first scene in which he callously throws out his coworkers’ refrigerated lunches to make room for his own in the fridge (an event that proves his undoing, but I’ll avoid spoiling that for now).
That said, Tracy and McAllister’s imperfections, however egregious, are still grounded. They’re awful, yeah, but they’re realistically awful, so much so that some of the film’s inherent humor comes in the fact that we’ve all probably known — or at one point been — a Tracy or a Mr. McAllister. That they’re recognizably human stops us from tuning out of their story, if only so that we can see them get their eventual comeuppance.
Payne’s direction shows us just how repugnant McAllister and Tracy are early into the movie. The closest thing we have to likable characters are Paul and Tammy, both of whom are still rife with imperfection (Paul is the only legitimately good-hearted and well-intentioned character in the movie but he’s still an unqualified doofus who should recognize that he has no place in this presidential race). Our emotional tether is not meant to be a character but rather a vague semblance of justice, a world in which Tracy and McAllister get what they deserve.
And they do. The film’s closing scenes depict the rivals as having ended up in hells so quiet they hardly realize they aren’t in heaven.
Not every intentionally-unlikable character is going to be crafted with the same care Payne put into Tracy Flick and Mr. McAllister. Still, watching Election is a nice reminder that it’s far more important to understand a character than it is to like them.
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