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In honor of the release of Christopher Guest's new film A MIGHTY WIND, I have decided to go back and look at some of his previous works. You see, Mr. Guest has carved out quite a little niche for himself working with a particular kind of film that he's apparently built to perfection. These "mockumentaries", obviously inspired by Guest's work in Rob Reiner's 1984 film THIS IS SPINAL TAP, have proven to be some of the most consistently funny films of the last few years.
The first of these films, 1996's critically acclaimed WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, provides the template for his next two films (well, if you don't count the Matthew Perry/Chris Farley disaster ALMOST HEROES.) This film mocks the documentation of a community theater in a small Missouri town called Blaine, who is putting on a musical historical play for the 150th Anniversary of the town's founding. The play is being organized by Corky St. Clair (portrayed by Guest), an effiminate high school drama teacher who relocated to Blaine from New York. Corky's eye for talent may need its prescription updated, though. The actors who he casts for his play aren't exactly future Tony award winners. In fact, they're pretty wretched. But it is a small town, and I guess the pickings are slim. The actors range from an overenthusiastic showbiz couple to a hard-of-sight dentist to a Dairy Queen counter girl, all of which have their hearts into the performance, even if they aren't the most talented thespians the world has seen.
Corky is determined to put on the best play that he can. He enlists a local mechanic to fill his missing role and pesters the city council for a rather hefty budget increase, but quickly loses hope that either of those dreams will pay off. But the biggest news for Corky and his cast is a letter from a New York theater company that sends a message of hope: One of their representatives is planning to attend the show's premiere. As the show goes on, the cast begins to worry whether or not their critic will show up.
The town of Blaine itself is an integral character to the movie. For those who may have grown up in a small town or had the culture shock of witnessing one after big city life, Guest hits the nail on the head with the portrayal of this sleepy midwestern town. The town swells with pride from their stoolmaking industry (making, of course, for some pretty easy plays on words) and their encounter with extraterrestrial visitors (as explained by the underutilized David Cross). Everyone seems to know each other in the town.
The pagaent that Corky puts on, called "Red, White, and Blaine", is a classically-styled musical recounting the town's most proud moments. The songs are tied together by a narrative by the unlikeliest best actor in the bunch, an old farmer who once had a hankerin' for acting when he was a kid. The songs themselves are pretty catchy numbers, following the town's history from settlers' days to the "Stool Boom" to the encounter with aliens, where they parallel their own boredom with the boredom on Mars. Guest cowrote the musical numbers with Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, who you may remember as his bandmates from Spinal Tap.
The story itself is told through a series of documentary-style interviews as well as expositional storyline. This type of filmmaking is effective because it gives the feel of a real documentary feature, yet still allows for an appealing plotline to develop and flesh out. It worked so well for Guest in this film that he decided to employ it in his followup, BEST IN SHOW, as well as in this year's A MIGHTY WIND. Along with the similairites in style, the three films also employ almost the exact same main cast. Those who have thusfar appeared in the trio are as follows: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Deborah Theaker, Michael Hitchcock, Larry Miller, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, and Bob Balaban. Still others have been featured in two out of three.
The real beauty of the film, and reall, of all three of these films, is the way the humor is presented. These movies don't come after you with blatant jokes and sight gags. The humor is situational and subtle, and to someone not in on the "joke", it might be easily lost. Fortunately, it also doesn't take the most sophisticated viewer to "get it".
GUFFMAN was well-received upon its release, and although a limited theatrical run didn't exactly translate to a huge box office, the film has since gained an almost cultlike following on video and DVD. Guest has breathed life into a genre that he basically owns.
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