Friday, January 6, 2012

Day 37: A Mighty Wind

"There was abuse in my family, mostly musical in nature."

Christopher Guest is a comedy legend. He's one-third of the most legendary fake rock band of all time and has made four almost wholly improvised films on his own, 1997's Waiting for Guffman, 2000's Best in Show, 2003's A Mighty Wind, and 2006's For Your Consideration. Waiting for Guffman is probably the best known, and deservedly so, at least in theatrical circles where it's attained a level of adoration that borders on psychotic. Best in Show was his first big expansion film, where he followed more than just five or six characters, and it's the most successful of his large cast films. For Your Consideration was the first non-mockumentary of the bunch and went with a straight narrative, and I'm being generous by saying that it's an unmitigated failure.

So where does that leave A Mighty Wind? Somewhere in the middle, I guess. It's got some pretty wild swings from hysterically funny to embarrassingly cringe-inducing. It tells the story of the death of a folk music producer named Irving Steinbloom, and the efforts by his son Jonathan (Bob Balaban) to stage a reunion concert for Irving's three biggest acts from the folk music heyday of the 1960s; The Main Street Singers, The Folksmen, and Mitch & Mickey.

The Main Street Singers are now The New Main Street Singers and are headed up by Terry (John Michael Higgins) and Laurie Bohner (Jane Lynch), and among their membership is Sissy Knox (Parker Posey, a welcome fixture in Guest's films). The Folksmen consists of Alan Barrows (Guest), Mark Shubb (Harry Shearer) and Jerry Palter (Michael McKean), the obvious novelty being the faux reuniting of Spinal Tap. And that leaves folk sweethearts Mitch and Mickey played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara respectively, comedy legends in their own rights.

The plot is a fairly straight-forward Guest plot, first giving the audience some history on the characters, then we meet and get to know the characters and then there's the big event at the end that brings all of the characters together, in this case the "Concert for Irving" at New York City's Town Hall. Some of the ancillary characters we meet along the way are the New Main Street Singer's manager Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard, stealing every scene he's in), PR Managers Wally Fenton (Larry Miller) and Amber Cole (Jennifer Coolidge), Irving's other children Elliott (Don Lake) and Naomi (Deborah Theaker, also stealing most of her scenes as an emotionally unstable basket case), and Lars Olfen (Ed Begley, Jr.) the public broadcasting producer of the television broadcast of the concert.

I don't know why it is that so much of the film works and so much doesn't, and there's really very little middle ground in it. John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch are a sublime pairing, combining their estimable comedic skills and playing off each other like a real married couple. They are without a doubt the best thing about the film. Catherine O'Hara is always wonderful and no less so than she is here. She carries most of the emotional weight of the film, if such a thing is possible, and creates a fully formed character even though she's only given a handful of scenes to do so. Willard and Theaker as I mentioned do a lot of scene stealing in their small roles, as do Miller and Coolidge. Bob Balaban makes the most of his small role too. Parker Posey is underused at best and totally wasted at worst. She's always great in these films and is given next to nothing to do here.

The real issue seems to be with The Folksmen trio. The novelty of seeing the three of them together again wears off quickly and most of their scenes do little to nothing to move things forward. A scene devoted to Mark Shubb's skin care routine is superfluous in the worst way as it's not even funny. There's tons of unnecessary bits in a film like this, but most of them are redeemed by the fact that they're funny. Any scene with Fred Willard does nothing to move the story forward, but his scenes are great because they're hysterically funny. The scenes with The Folksmen are just plain awful.

That brings us to Eugene Levy. For the first two films he did with Guest, he essentially played the exact same character. Here he takes a bold leap in a new direction and it doesn't really pay off. Levy isn't one for subtlety, and watching him try to do less is almost painful. He flounders as he tries to not be funny. He's a classic ham and I have always been a big fan of his when he's in his zone, but here, I'll give him credit for trying something different, but it just doesn't work.

The music in the film, however, is brilliant. Top to bottom, all of it is great, the most famous song being the Oscar-nominated "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," which is a legitimately great song. Mitch & Mickey's other song "When I'm Next to You" is also great, as is the doubly prepared "Wanderin'" as well as the title song of the film, which ends with possibly the greatest line in the whole film. Any of these songs could have been an actual song of the era, and Guest has a lot of very talented singer/songwriter friends who wrote (and in the case of John Michael Higgins, arranged) some wonderful songs for the film.

Overall, I think this is only a film for the diehard Guest fans. Best in Show or Guffman are much better gateway films for first-timers. The film could have been a lot worse, but it could have been a lot better too, and the unfortunate thing seems to be that Guest's ensemble has just grown too large. He can't give everybody ample screen time to be great in the confines of a ninety minute film. But even still, he doesn't seem to have put the best stuff out there, and I wonder what got left on the cutting room floor. I hope that when he does finally get around to making another film, he reins things in and narrows his focus a bit. At the very least it'll be worth watching, and at best, it could be another Guffman.

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