In 1996 with "Sister Ruth," the courageous and innovative filmmaker Alexander Payne took on the explosive ethical questions surrounding the abortion issue. He managed to score points against both extremist sides. His new satirical comedy, based on a 1998 novel by Tom Perrotta, is one of the best films of the year. Here Payne launches a full-fledged critique of the moral emptiness of the archetypal ugly American — those driven, self-righteous go-getters who are totally oblivious to the trouble and pain they bring into the lives of others. These self-absorbed individuals inevitably draw out the worst in the people around them and bring chaos to those who try to interfere with their plans.

This snappy and fast-paced drama is set in Omaha, Nebraska, where Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is running for the presidency of the student council at George Washington Carver High. This overachiever feels superior to everyone else and firmly believes she is entitled to success because she works so hard at being a winner. She strives to be every teacher's pet, but one of them, history and civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), is not at all charmed. He watched Tracy walk away unscathed after she had an affair with his best friend and colleague, who subsequently lost his job and his wife.

McAllister decides to stop Tracy now. He recruits Paul (Chris Klein), a dim-witted but good-hearted football star, to run against her in the election. A wild card in the race is the entry of Tammy (Jessica Campbell), Paul's lesbian sister. She is miffed because her former lover has become Paul's girlfriend. A rebel at heart, Tammy runs on a platform of abolishing student government altogether, a position that wins amazing support from the other students.

This satirical comedy really spins on all four cylinders as McAllister's life falls apart in the midst of his crusade against Tracy. She is an inimitable foe who provides for the teacher a mirror of his own moral shabbiness. While the archetypal American forges ahead with resolve, the rest of the world picks up the pieces. The closing sequences of this inventive film offer a few chuckles and food for thought on the soul of America. We leave the theater wondering: Just who gets ahead and why?

Special DVD features include scene access and an audio commentary by director Alexander Payne.