Christopher Guest: A Group of One
Christopher Guest is one of those multi-talented actors who has gotten more appreciated for his work as time goes on. He began his career, like so many other actors, playing in small TV roles in the 1970’s on such sit-coms as “All in the Family” and “Laverne and Shirley”. He even got a few roles on the short lived series “Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell” years before he went on the NBC version.
While his most famous role may be the clueless guitarist Nigel “But this one goes to 11” Tufnel of the very bad heavy metal group “Spinal Tap”, he has shown a wide range of characters over the past 30 years in both television and films. Most notably, the evil Count Tyrone Rugen in “The Princess Bride”, Guest manages to channel the great Henry Daniell (“Sea Hawk” or “The Great Dictator”) into his performance, which made Rugan a wonderful bad guy.
His stint on Saturday Night Live for one season also allowed Guest to perform many different characters, from an old baseball player to the Weekend Update news anchor.
“This is Spinal Tap” had a profound impact on Guest’s career. Not only did the success of the film help elevate his fame, the “mockumentary” structure set the pattern for Guest and his partner Eugene Levy to create four more films in that style.
For those who have never seen a “mockumentary”, it is filmed in the style of a standard “documentary”, but there is no set script, only a general outline of the events as they will happen. So the actors themselves have to come up with their own dialogue in each scene. It’s not quite improve as they get to rehearse a little and get several takes to find the right lines, but given the talent involved, they often come up with great lines and their performances are fresh and very funny.
Here are the four efforts from Guest that are done in this particular style.
Waiting for Guffman (1996)
In the small town of Blaine, Missouri a local amateur theater troupe prepares a new musical show when their beloved leader Corky St. Clair (Guest) invites a Broadway theater critic (Guffman) to opening night and the news sends shock waves across the town.
A first effort from the “Guest troupe” does struggle a bit to get going, the overlong history of the town of Blaine and the politics of the town council are a little shaky. But overall, this film is a warm and funny look at the world of amateur theatre. And anyone who’s ever been associated with that world (me included) can get plenty of laughs from recognizing the characters that are in the play.
Eugene Levy as a dentist inspired to take the leap into musical theater is flat-out funny, especially any time he tries to sing or dance, a pair of travel agents (Catherine O’Hare and Fred Willard) also steal practically every scene they are in.
Guest’s take on Corky, a middle aged man whose flamboyant personality is somewhat on the “showy” side might be considered a stereotype by some, but I’ve known people like that in local theater (perhaps they dress a bit less “loud”) so I found his character somewhat fitting.
This film also demonstrates the talents of the cast who occupy lesser roles, such as the always funny Larry Miller as the Mayor of Blaine and even Don Lake (someone get this guy a sit-com) shines in his very small role as the town historian.
I don’t think of it as an insult to state that this is the least of the four films Guest made in the “mockumentary” style. It’s pretty clear he, along with the cast was finding their way and it leads to a significantly better follow-up film.
Best in Show (2000)
The annual Mayflower Dog Show attracts a wide variety of dog owners who descend upon the city, complete with all their problems.
“Best in Show” is a complete howl all the way through. Starting with the somewhat nervous civic center manager (Lake) who describes what is and will happen through a series of excited exhales to the final, hysterical finish where we see what happened to all the dog owners’ months after the show ended.
Standouts include Levy and O’ Hara as a couple from Florida travelling to the dog show on the cheap, one stop in particular has them visiting one of her many, many, many ex-boyfriends (Miller, who’s a complete scream). Stefan (Spinal Tap veteran Michael McKean) and his life partner Scott (John Michael Higgins) who groom and show toy dogs shine in scenes like when Scott has packed about three weeks worth of clothes for a two-night stay.
This may be the best performance of Guest himself, playing the really backwoods Harlan Pepper, who takes his hound dog to the show. Guest’s accent and mannerisms are dead on perfect and he has a couple of riotous scenes, one where he “sings” in his RV on the way to the dog show and the other at the end of the film where we see him perform a new, quite different stage act.
About the only pair that misses is Meg (Parker Posey) and Hamilton (Michael Hitchcock) as a neurotic couple obsessed with keeping their rather depressed Labrador happy, even if it’s driving them insane. Their tone runs counter to the comedy and it just doesn’t quite work.
About 2/3rds the way through the film, just as things settle into the dog show itself, along comes Fred Willard as the insane TV host Buck Laughlin. He takes command of the final act and never lets go, his insane commentary combined with his earnest excitement at covering the show is a performance for the ages. And all of his scenes were completed in less than two days, which is astounding when you consider just how long he is in the film.
A Mighty Wind (2003)
Legendary promoter Irving Stienbloom passes away and three formerly famous folk bands get together for a benefit concert to celebrate Stienbloom’s life.
“A Mighty Wind” may not be as flat out funny as “Best in Show”, but it’s pretty darn close. The three folk bands start with McKean, Guest, and Harry Shearer playing the aged trio “The Folksmen” (these were the same guys who played Spinal Tap). Here, Guest disappears into his role almost too well and this is his least “showy” performance. The next band is the very large “The New Main Street Singers” led by Terry Bohner (Higgins), whose childhood was devastated by “abuse, in a musical nature”. His wife Laurie (Jane Lynch) nearly steals the movie as her rather disturbing past is revealed as well. And finally, the reunited folk couple Mitch (Levy) and Mickie (O’Hara) who may or may not stay together long enough to make it to the stage.
This is Eugene Levy’s best role, perhaps ever as the spaced out, exhausted Mitch, a character and voice unlike what he normally plays. Mitch’s confused state along with his steadfast honesty makes for an unforgettable character.
Other standouts include Bob Balaban as the son of the late promoter trying to pull the concert together with his neurotic sister (Deborah Theaker) and disinterested brother (Lake). The clueless public relations couple (Miller and Jennifer Coolidge who shine as an earnest, stupid PR agent), Ed Begley Jr. makes the most of his few minutes onscreen as the TV director of the concert. And finally Fred Willard who once again is a complete riot as The New Main Street Singers manager, complete with spiky hair.
The film ends with a wonderful concert chock full of pretty good, if a little strange folk songs that brings the film to a happy, very funny conclusion.
For Your Consideration (2006)
A small, trifle of a film about a Jewish family celebrating “Purim” gets blown all out of proportion when a twitter leak mentions that the lead of the movie Marilyn Hack (O’ Hara, in her best role yet) may be up for an Oscar nomination.
This final “mockumentary” effort has a different feel than the previous three. There are fewer interviews and the style of the film is more observational, rather than intrusive. “Consideration” does capture the lunacy of how actors, writers, and studios respond to the possibility of what an Oscar nomination might mean. And this leads to “Home for Purim” becoming “Home for Thanksgiving” to appeal to the widest audience possible.
O’Hara is dead on perfect and creates a wonderful character that makes a rather extraordinary change to her appearance when she realizes what this can do for her career. Her botox from hell look was achieved naturally and O’Hara managed to keep her face that taut for the rest of the film.
Other standouts include John Michael Higgins as the clueless, PR front for the studio who proudly reminds everyone within listening distance that he’s 1/8th Choctaw. Guest himself as the very Jewish, somewhat portly Jay Berman who is directing the film. It’s a credit to Guest’s abilities that he allows his rather prominent gut to do a lot of the work for him.
In much smaller roles, Don Lake and Michael Hitchcock team up as two movie critics who’s “Love it/Hate it” show is drop dead funny. Levy plays the agent of poor Victor Allen Miller (Shearer) as both concerned and distracted at the same time. And as you might expect, Fred Willard and Jane Lynch are very funny as the host of an “Entertainment Tonight” type TV show.
There is also a really neat scene between the always funny Coolidge, whose character produces the film and Rickey Gervais as a studio big shot. It’s great to see Gervais actually challenged by doing a mostly improve role and he does manage to pull it off. Of course, Coolidge is an old pro at this and she gets the best line.
All four of these films are genuinely funny and highly entertaining, certainly worth passing a Saturday afternoon with on days when you might not find anything worthwhile to watch. Sadly, Guest himself announced after completing “Consideration” that he was no longer going to make films in the “mockumentary” style. But at least we have these four films to watch and enjoy.