A Christopher Guest film is a quirkily off-kilter documentary from a parallel universe just a couple of dimensional clicks away from reality.
Since cowriting and costarring in Rob Reiner’s genre-creating mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, an outrageous sendup of big-hair heavy-metal bands, Guest has become synonymous with the satirical pseudo-documentary. In the past eight years he has directed as well as cowritten and costarred in films skewering small-town theater (Waiting for Guffman), dog-show competition (Best in Show), and now, with A Mighty Wind, ’60s folk music. Much of his footage is improvised, and his stalwart troupe of regulars, which includes Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Bob Balaban, John Michael Higgins, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, and Fred Willard, are completely at ease working with only the outlines of a script.
Like Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind follows a number of musicians who never actually existed, but often feel as if they might have. There’s a convincing history to the Folksmen, Mitch & Mickey, and the New Main Street Singers, developed by Guest through a combination of pseudo-archival footage, interview sequences, and period album covers that folk fans might almost remember having seen in their collections.
Guest seems closer to his subject matter this time around than in previous efforts, and Mighty Wind is his most affectionate, least satiric film. The sharpest jabs are directed, not at the folkies themselves, but at the businessmen around them — a bombastic manager (Willard in another show-stealing part) whose failed sitcom career left him with a dumb catchphrase he still thinks is hilarious; a pair of philistine public-relations agents (Miller and Coolidge) who frankly admit they know nothing about folk music ("But it doesn’t matter what we think; it matters what you think. And what we can make you think").
When it comes to the music itself, Guest’s wit turns to gentle absurdities: The Folksmen, a Kingston-Trio-like threesome played by Guest, McKean, and Spinal Tap alum Harry Shearer, have a toe-tapping anthem with the improbable title "Never Did No Wanderin’" and an amusing hit inspired by a faulty neon sign. Mitch & Mickey (Levy and O’Hara), once the sweethearts of the folk world before a nasty breakup, have a heartfelt signature ballad played without a trace of irony. Only the oversized, homogenized New Main Street Singers, a nine-player band (or "neuftet" in the expression of a founding member) known for its color-coordinated outfits and New Christy Minstrels sound, catches any real flack on the musical front.
Perhaps also due to his interest in the subject matter, Guest relies far less on objectionable sexual humor than at times in the past. Best in Show was seriously weakened by often tasteless and unfunny sexual subplots, and it was no accident that the two funniest characters (those of Guest and Willard) were the only ones who didn’t bring their sex lives into the film (which was after all about a subject that had nothing to do with sex).
Guest goes easier on the randy humor in Mighty Wind, though he doesn’t entirely abandon it. Unfortunately, it still isn’t funny. One character has a past as a porn star; another stays in a hotel room adjacent to the room of an audibly active couple. Conceivably such scenarios could lead to humorous payoffs; but the movie seems to think the scenarios are funny in themselves, and they aren’t. There’s also a bit in which a male character appears in drag and talks about wanting to spend his life "as a woman"; that’s not funny either, though it does lead to a goofy sight gag.
Like all of Guest’s films, the improvisational humor is hit and miss. Some gags feel like a setup for a punchline that never comes, and some of the kookiness is just kooky without being particularly humorous (e.g., the wacky color-worship religion practiced by some of the characters). When it clicks, though, it can be really funny. Levy, cruelly wasted in Best in Show, shines as the male half of Mitch & Mickey — once a folk icon, now a pathetic yet poignant broken-down hipster who struggles over mental and verbal connections. The titles and cover art of his post-breakup albums are a riot, too. The film kicks into high gear in its final act, a PBS reunion concert special filmed in NY in which comedy, music, and sincere emotion come together in a crowd-pleasing finale.
I enjoyed this kinder, gentler Guest film, though at times I thought the satire could have been more pointed. Watching a scene in which deep-voiced Harry Shearer comments with just slightly elevated solemnity about using skin cream on his face, I couldn’t help thinking of a far more surreal real-life monologue“I praise the Lord for a song in my youth, and also Oil of Olay! For my face I use Oil of Olay — not the pink kind, that’s very harsh. I use Neutrogena for the body, and then I use hydro gel cream for the nighttime and hydro gel day cream for the day. I use five creams on my skin, and I color my hair every 14 days. And I praise Jesus Christ I have not missed a shower since December 20, 1980… I don’t mean just sprinkling water on, I mean three latherings. Rinse-lather-rinse, rinse-lather-rinse, rinse…”— The Door, September/October 1994 by Tiny Tim in an interview with The Door magazine. Sometimes, truth is just stranger than fiction.
The good news about Best in Show, the latest film from mockumentary veteran Christopher Guest (Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman), is that it’s funny — sometimes very funny. Guest is a sort of purist who creates the impromptu feel and immediacy of documentary by working from a short outline rather than a finished script; so his players really are ad-libbing to a significant degree.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.