Tag Archives: Christopher Guest

Waiting for Guffman (1996, Christopher Guest)

Waiting for Guffman is a story of dreams and dreamers. Director (co-writer and star) Guest opens the film with shots of a small American town, Blaine, Missouri. It’s a town with a lot of history and a lot of heart. Sure, it’s all absurd history, but those absurdities just make the heart beat stronger. Guffman is a mockumentary, starting with the town council going on and on about their sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) celebration. It takes Guffman a while before it gets to the actual storyline.

Because there’s all that absurd history and absurd councilpeople to get through.

There’s going to be a play at for the celebration, directed by a flamboyant, artistically inept New York emigrant (Guest), starring a bunch of local dreamers. Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara are the town travel agents, who also regularly star in Guest’s productions. Willard’s a jerk and O’Hara drinks too much. Neither are talented. Parker Posey is another member of the regular troupe. She’s not talented. Eugene Levy (who also co-wrote the film) is a dentist who wants to be an entertainer. He’s not talented. Matt Keeslar works at the family scrapyard–he’s a hunk who Guest enlists to star then fawns over. He’s not talented. Then there’s Bob Balaban as the high school music teacher who thinks he should be in charge of the production and resents Guest.

Everyone is hilarious. Keeslar least, but he’s still really funny. He’s got a reaction part and he never gets to be in on the joke (of Guest fawning over him). Willard, O’Hara, Guest, Levy, Posey, Balaban–they’re all phenomenal. Much of Guffman is adlibbed and you can just see the actors spark these great ideas and run with them as the scenes unfold. It’s awesome.

Guest is probably the best during these scenes; he’s got the most to do–he’s directing the production, after all–though everyone with a lot of material gives him a run for the money. Meaning everyone but Balaban. He’s sort of an extended cameo, which Guest (as director–of the film, not the stage production in the film) uses to great effect.

But then it’s showtime and Guffman switches gears. Now it’s this absurd stage production and the actors are playing their absurd characters playing these absurdly (and now–intentionally–poorly) written parts. The councilpeople return to do the mockumentary interview spots because, presumably, the leads’ characters are too busy performing. The film mostly gets away with the change in tone, with Guest throwing in some backstage character moments for the actors but never quite enough.

The shift changes the film’s energy and knocks the narrative distance out of whack. Even though Guest establishes the mockumentary device and occasionally the actors even acknowledge it in their performances, it’s gone from how the stage production occurs. Without constant hilarity to distract, the mockumentary device’s problems become a lot more apparent.

When the film wraps up in an epilogue, Guest and company go back to trying to make it funny. They mostly succeed, but the pacing of the jokes is different. Guest and editor Andy Blumenthal cut the epilogue with a different pace–they’re trying to get done, trying to get to the right jokes to close out Guffman.

It works, it just doesn’t match the first act. Guffman suffers from being too funny without strict narrative pacing–even absurd pacing–and not funny enough when Guest has to implement it.

Uneven or not, Guffman’s hilarious, well-directed, and phenomenally acted.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Guest; written by Guest and Eugene Levy; director of photography, Roberto Schaefer; edited by Andy Blumenthal; music by Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; produced by Karen Murphy; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Christopher Guest (Corky St. Clair), Fred Willard (Ron Albertson), Catherine O’Hara (Sheila Albertson), Parker Posey (Libby Mae Brown), Eugene Levy (Dr. Allan Pearl), Matt Keeslar (Johnny Savage), Lewis Arquette (Clifford Wooley), and Bob Balaban (Lloyd Miller).


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For Your Consideration (2006, Christopher Guest)

Apparently, when Christopher Guest doesn’t do pseudo-documentaries, his films simply don’t work. I didn’t realize For Your Consideration was different in that approach until a lot further in than I should have, probably fifteen minutes or something. As it opens and introduces the set-up (I guess that part would be called the first act, which is an odd thing for one of these Guest and Levy improv films to have), the film’s interesting and sort of funny. Giggling funny. Audible laughter. Then it starts going places–there’s a story and it moves. Instead of being about a movie being made, it’s a narrative about the cast and their Academy Award dreams. Guest takes a mocking approach to the characters, then lays on syrup to make the audience care. It really feels like they started making a movie and realized it wasn’t working, so they made For Your Consideration.

Obviously, there are some good performances. Guest himself, as the director of the movie in the movie, is excellent. Except he’s barely in it. At first I thought he was doing a German director, then I thought maybe Woody Allen, then he disappeared so it didn’t really matter. Eugene Levy plays an annoying agent and he’s only interesting because it’s Eugene Levy. It’s not good because it’s Eugene Levy, but somehow, Levy has become someone who is cast for who they are, not what they can do. Very interesting, but it doesn’t make for a good performance. Harry Shearer is fine. Half of Catharine O’Hara’s acting is good, but when she turns into a silicone Sharon Stone, the film really loses her and she loses her. She starts making fun of the character too, just because there’s nothing else to do. Fred Willard’s kind of funny as the annoying entertainment “reporter,” but even he’s nearing Levy territory. Only Parker Posey is great, but I’m more and more frequently coming to the conclusion she’s always great. Posey’s even good in the scenes where she’s supposed to be poorly acting. Some of it she does get the bad acting down, but there’s a little bit when she’s actually good in this horrible scene.

For Your Consideration is either the end of Guest for a while or he’ll come back real strong next time. But I wouldn’t bet on it. Though, obviously, if it has Parker Posey, I’ll see it.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Guest; written by Guest and Eugene Levy; director of photography, Roberto Schaefer; edited by Robert Leighton; music by Jeffrey C.J. Vanston; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; produced by Karen Murphy; released by Warner Independent Pictures.

Starring Bob Balaban (Philip Koontz), Jennifer Coolidge (Whitney Taylor Brown), Christopher Guest (Jay Berman), John Michael Higgins (Corey Taft), Eugene Levy (Morley Orfkin), Jane Lynch (Cindy), Michael McKean (Lane Iverson), Catherine O’Hara (Marilyn Hack), Parker Posey (Callie Webb), Harry Shearer (Victor Allan Miller), Fred Willard (Chuck) and Ricky Gervais (Martin Gibb).


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This is Spinal Tap (1984, Rob Reiner)

To be fair, I haven’t seen Spinal Tap in fifteen years, so when I say I remember it being funnier… well, I’m sure I used to think Caddyshack was funnier too. Funny even.

Spinal Tap achieved, in the late 1990s, a mythic reputation among film and DVD geeks for a couple reasons. First, I suppose, was Waiting for Guffman. Second, and more specific, was the Criterion Collection DVD release, which became rare as many of those early Criterion DVDs became rare. I didn’t have the Criterion–though, at one point, I think I might have had a copy of the in-character audio commentary–and I never watched it during this period. Getting around to it now was because the fiancée had never seen it and, like I said, I remembered it being funnier.

The film’s greatest deficit, both acting-wise and creatively, is obviously Rob Reiner. His direction is insipid, which–from the technical angle–could be explained by his character’s lack of talent, but the direction of actors isn’t any good either, so that excuse is out. His acting is something even worse and he weighs down every scene he’s in. Unfortunately, Reiner’s not the only problem. While Spinal Tap is really funny during the first half hour or so, once the film gets itself a narrative, it crumbles. Long, unfunny scenes, meant to tell a story, make the film feel like it’s three hours instead of eighty-two minutes.

Some of the cameos are incredibly successful–Bruno Kirby’s for instance–but others are just too short. Fred Willard needed a few more seconds. Spinal Tap is almost a success, stressing the ‘almost.’ The rest of the fault has to fall on the band focus. Christopher Guest is the best, but doesn’t get as much screen-time as Michael McKean, who is the worst. June Chadwick, as McKean’s girlfriend, is boring and predictable (both her performance and the character). Harry Shearer isn’t in the film anywhere near enough and it never feels like he has a relationship with the other band members.

In short, it works as a joke, not a movie.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Reiner; written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Reiner; director of photography, Peter Smokler; edited by Robert Leighton, Kent Beyda and Kim Secrist; music and lyrics by Guest, McKean, Shearer and Reiner; produced by Karen Murphy; released by Embassy Pictures.

Starring Rob Reiner (Marty DiBerti), Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins), Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel), Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls), R.J. Parnell (Mick Shrimpton), David Kaff (Viv Savage), Tony Hendra (Ian Faith), Bruno Kirby (Tommy Pischedda) and June Chadwick (Jeanine Pettibone).


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