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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

An Endorsement for a Movie That Wins in a Landslide

May 07, 1999|MIKE DOWNEY

I seldom go to movies about teenagers. It's not because I'm prejudiced against them. (Against the movies or the teenagers.) No, my principal problem is that I have turned into such a boring, uncool, out-of-it, grumpy middle-aged man that I still go around using boring, uncool words--like, for example, "teenagers."

It's one of those words that old people use that a lot of young people can't stand.

(The worst of all being "youngsters.")

Movies made for young people are usually made by older people, who think they speak young people's language. Sometimes they do, since Hollywood's idea of an old person is anyone over 26.

The great industry controversy of 1998 came when a Valley woman passed herself off as a Valley girl, pretending to be in her teens so she could get a script sold when she was actually one of the dreaded 30-somethings.

She lied, cheated and deceived. Probably running a studio now.

I tried that once. I told an agent I was 19, and that I'd just written a modern version of "Casablanca" in which Rick now owns the Viper Room. He tells his girlfriend, "Here's, like, looking at you, you know?"

My scheme was spoiled when I met the agent in person. I did my best to look 19 by ripping holes in the knees of my pants, but gave myself away because at the time, I was wearing a suit.

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So, why don't I go to more movies about teenag . . . er, I mean younger people?

Maybe it's the "Featuring Songs By" problem.

The ads often mention musicians whose work is featured in the film. One new one boasts: "Featuring Music by the Offspring, Blink 182, Rob Zombie, the Living End and Zebrahead." Makes me feel so guilty, because I've never heard of the Offspring, Blink 182, Rob Zombie, Living End or Zebrahead.

But there's a new movie about high school students that I just went to, after reading excellent reviews in this newspaper--"A nearly flawless film!" our guy raved--and in the New Yorker.

The film is "Election," one of the few movies made in the 1990s that doesn't star John Travolta.

It stars Matthew Broderick as a teacher and Reese Witherspoon as a student who is running for class president. She is unopposed until Broderick, a civics teacher, encourages a dopey but popular football player to run against her.

The movie takes place in Nebraska--or, as many Hollywood executives think of it, one of those states "in the middle."

(There is so much Midwest-bashing in today's movies that I am frequently outraged as a native Midwest American.)

Fortunately, the director and co-writer of "Election" is Alexander Payne, who is from Nebraska and doesn't make fun of it. Payne has made a couple of films set in Omaha, and not one character speaks with a cornball accent, the way today's movie makers now stereotype anybody from Dakota or Minnesota.

"Fargo" was a good film, but now people think that's how everybody up there talks.

I didn't go in expecting much from "Election," despite its thumbs-up notices. The most appealing thing to me was the idea of seeing Broderick play a teacher, since this is the same actor who once played the scourge of teachers, Ferris Bueller.

I can't resist telling you that I found this movie irresistible. It was much better than I thought it would be, although I had better not see any advertisements this week that read: "Much better than I thought it would be! --Downey, L.A. Times."

Warning: There are a few raunchy lines spoken in this R-rated story, in yet another reminder that some of the dialogue in today's films would make a hooker blush.

The good news is, it's nonviolent, except for a teacher getting stung in the eye by a bee.

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With school days as perilous as they are these days, it was a pleasure to see a movie about a simple class election. Handmade posters in the halls, petitions, awkward speeches, cupcakes. . . . "Election" sure did bring back a few memories.

(I was president of my eighth-grade class. I believe my campaign pledge was to make Central Junior High a place where students could feel safe from global tyranny and play tetherball during lunch.)

The best thing is, this movie makes me want to go see more movies about young people.

Perhaps next I'll try that one where Drew Barrymore plays a newspaper reporter who goes back to high school, which is the scariest plot idea I have ever heard.

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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