Guest Crafts Another Ode To Performance Anxiety, "A Mighty Wind"
by Tommy Nguyen
If you've seen "Waiting for Guffman," you already know we're in it for the long, wonderful haul with writer-director-star Christopher Guest. For "Guffman" fans, it's pure love, which is never easy to let go; for Guest, it's knowing movie-making chemistry when you see it, and being smart enough to hold on to the right elements for as long as you can. No doubt inspired by his co-writing work on Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap," Guest has fully developed his own world of mysteries and manners in the art houses of American comedy (though some would argue that his films' deadpan elegance is certainly more British), using his blithely agile mock-documentary style in "Guffman," "Best In Show" and "A Mighty Wind" -- his latest, which was also shot in Super 16mm -- to explore the queer, often redemptive endowments hidden beneath the long-winded fuss of performance anxiety. Whether these films end up as a tidy trilogy about that anxiety or only openers to a prodigious, Woody Allen-esque span of cinema history and idiosyncrasy (forgetting his 1998 comedy "Almost Heroes," starring the late Chris Farley, is requisite, however), Guest and his repertoire collaborators certainly have the most distinct voice in big-screen comedy today.
Along with co-writer and star Eugene Levy and an ensemble cast of familiar faces, Guest again documents the trail of blood, sweat, and fears that leads up to the big day and, ultimately, the big picture. As always, the show must go on (with Guest's characters, is there anything else for them to do?), even if the folk-music artists selected to perform in a tribute concert for the late Irving Steinbloom, the esteemed godfather of folk-music management, only have two weeks to rehearse. The man producing the concert is Jonathan (Bob Balaban), Steinbloom's obsessive-compulsive son, and he handpicks the lineup himself: Mitch and Micky (Levy and Catherine O'Hara), a now-divorced couple known for their late '60s flower-dour love songs; The Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer), who released perhaps the best folk vinyls never to be distributed or given holes at the center; and the New Main Street Singers (featuring Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, and Jane Lynch), an overjoyed "neuftet" of toothy smiles and toothache colors.
Of the group above, only Shearer is new to a Guest-directed mockumentary. But as one of the stars and co-writers of "This Is Spinal Tap" (along with McKean as well), Shearer is already a part of the bedrock of Guest's comedic vogue, and the chemistry between the three friends is, of course, wonderfully alive and apparently singing. As for the troupe coming home, there's Fred Willard, who plays the manager of the New Main Street Singers and an endearingly irritating entrepreneur of pop-culture phrases; Michael Hitchcock, the city councilman who yells out "Corky! Corky!" in rage applause and ecstasy in "Guffman," now playing the manager of the concert's venue in New York City; and, everyone's favorite, Jennifer Coolidge, whom Guest fans remember as the socialite lipstick lesbian in "Best in Show." She steals the preciously few moments she's in "A Mighty Wind" as a publicist with a crack-pipe hodgepodge accent ("a combination of Scandinavian, Czechoslovakian and a deaf woman," says Coolidge in the press notes), and she works so well with her PR cohort (Larry Miller, another Guest alum) that it's "like we're sharing one brain."
What makes the films of Guest work, first and foremost, is the ease with which his ensemble cast completely embodies the material. Then again, embodiment should come easy -- it's the actors' material, too. Guest and Levy never give a finished script to their actors. Instead, they write detailed descriptions of the scenes they would like to have -- basic plot information that needs to be conveyed -- and leave their actors to improvise the dialogue and caricature ticks in the workshopping process. Often the actor creates the physical appearance of the character as well. So, to a large extent, an actor's creative response to the writers' setting and scenario has been informed by the other actors' responses in the scene as well, creating an organic, masterfully alert tempo of dramatic beats and phrasing that's like witnessing the improvisational magic of a red-hot jazz band.
The film's ensemble cast as a seasoned company is certainly in top form, but when it comes to the assessment that matters most, it's hard to say why "A Mighty Wind" just isn't as funny as its sister films. There's a vague sense here that the characters are going after punch lines, trying to be funny, whereas the other two films just relied on the sheer down-to-earth oddity of the characters' lives to sustain the laughs.
Perhaps the premise and subsequent comedic resources of "A Mighty Wind" are so similar to "Guffman" that the pre-show jitter jokes aren't as fresh. And the one substantial difference between their two finales -- a production featuring professionals versus one with amateurs -- works to the disadvantage of "A Mighty Wind." The stage play at the end of "Guffman" is so horribly performed that it's charmingly ridiculous. As for the concert at the end of "A Mighty Wind," well, it sounds like folk music (all of it original material), and whether it's good or not all depends on whether you like folk music. Apart from a few funny verses in the songs, and a make-up kiss between two former lovers, a folk-music concert that actually comes through with its promise of folk music isn't as cracked up as it's supposed to be.