A mighty whimper.
Only someone truly uncharitable could resist the charms of Christopher Guest, the ringleader of an agile troupe of mockumentarians. After watching Guest's oeuvre, including his latest, For Your Consideration, I am afraid I am that man. As David St. Hubbins once put it, "There's a thin line between stupid and clever," and since This Is Spinal Tap (1984), the film that started it all, Guest's movies have become increasingly threadbare. They have a lot of mirth but few laughs. And I think the problem is lodged in his much-vaunted approach to comic filmmaking.
Guest—who, it is mandatory to mention, is the husband of Jamie Lee Curtis—was a National Lampoon writer, a director of low-budget features, and a player on Saturday Night Live. His tombstone, however, will identify him as Nigel Tufnel, the lead guitarist of the rock group Spinal Tap. As is now legendary, Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer ad-libbed most of their dialogue for the film—continuing the game Guest and McKean started when they were New York University roommates. Director Rob Reiner, who also starred, combed through the hours of outtakes and somehow located 80 minutes worth of screwball comedy.
With Spinal Tap,Guest and his troupe were not just making a funny movie but inventing the method that Guest would use for his subsequent directorial efforts. First, Guest and company devise a "screenplay without dialogue." Then, they let the cameras roll for extended takes—often as long as 10 minutes—while the actors, who have been given little more than their characters' names, free associate. The product is spontaneous and free-flowing—"real behavior," Guest has said, "rather than real manipulated behavior." "The actors know what the intention of the scene is," Guest told the New York Daily News a few years ago, "but there are no lines written down, and the first time you hear it and see it on the screen, that's it—that's the first time it was said. I've tried to make all these analogies to what we're doing, mostly with music. Like in jazz—there are no music stands. Where's the music coming from? They're making it up. And in these films, this is jamming. This is actor jamming."
Twelve years after Spinal Tap, Guest reappeared to jam with a new band, which included Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, and Fred Willard. In Waiting for Guffman, he trained his sights on community theater and gave himself the part of Corky St. Clair—one of his most fully realized comic creations and one almost worthy of his idol, Peter Sellers. (In one of the movie's funniest scenes, St. Clair sells My Dinner With Andre action figures.) Guest later directed Best in Show (2000), about dog-show enthusiasts, and A Mighty Wind (2003), about a reunion of folk-rock knuckleheads. As he turned out movies, Guest began to settle into a comfortable format: Self-serious characters were unveiled in long addresses to the camera; they all seemed to have strange talents (Guest's character, Harlan Pepper, in Best in Show can identify various nuts); and, in the end, the oddballs would assemble together for a climactic concert/play/event in which they would transcend their idiocy and somehow emerge triumphant.
There are a few problems with this. One is that Guest rarely chooses satirical targets that present much of a challenge. Aging rockers might deserve our everlasting scorn. But what about small-town actors, dog-show contestants, and folk musicians? I don't think Guest disdains his characters, as some critics have suggested, but I do think he's aiming a bit too low. Even if we allow Guest's affection for idiots, their idiocy is becoming a bit too predictable. Going into a Guest movie, you know that Fred Willard will be a fast talker who covers up his dumbness in a patter of inanity (his Best in Show color man being perhaps the height of the form); that Eugene Levy will speak slowly and formally; that Catherine O'Hara will be a tightly wound ball of emotion; that Parker Posey will be enthusiastic and slightly clueless; and so forth.
But my biggest complaint goes to the very heart of Guest's method. To read his reviews, you would get the idea that improvisation is a funnier—and more authentic—form of comedy than conventional mirth-making. Anybody can deliver a line written by Mel Brooks, the thinking goes, but Guest's players are out there winging it, creating "high-wire" comedy on the fly. To hear a studious guy like Guest wax about his technique ("I take seriously this craft, and to break that down into an improvisational craft … ") is to be taken with him. As USA Today once put it in a glowing profile, "Real. A good word to describe Guest and his art."
This is nonsense. Mockumentaries are no more "real" than any other form of movie comedy. For one thing, if what Guest is doing is spontaneous, it's a highly stage-managed form of spontaneity: Guest sifted through 55 hours of footage to come up with the 80 minutes that make up Waiting for Guffman. Second, what's most important about comedy is whether or not it's funny, and I would argue that Guest's method often begets a kind of dullness. He's content with his actors "jamming," when tireless preparation—the tedious writing and rewriting of scenes and gag lines—would have served him better.
When the Guest method doesn't work, it's like watching one long deleted scene on a DVD. For Your Consideration, which aims to skewer Hollywood chuckleheads with the gusto of Guffman, is Guest's weakest film and the clearest sign yet that his method leaves something to be desired. Guest has set up his usual troupe as the makers of, and the Hollywood leeches attached to, a schmaltzy art film called Home for Purim. (Basic plot: A daughter visits an ailing mother … and confronts the truth.) The buzz—a phenomenon everyone in the movie is excited by, but that no one quite seems to understand—has it that Home for Purim will be an Oscar contender.
On paper, no doubt, this all sounded quite funny. For instance, the idea of Eugene Levy playing a blowhard Hollywood agent. But Levy has been given nothing funny to say, and his role is an aimless, if pleasant, dud. Ditto Catherine O'Hara's role as a leading lady in need of constant care and feeding, and Parker Posey's turn as (once again) a young, brash, clueless actress who is dating her co-star. The film closes with Posey, her film career in tatters, performing aggressively feminist comedy in front of a small audience. But Guest just pushes Posey out there, and the whole scene passes without a single laugh. In fact, it's the most written part of the movie, a sendup of Entertainment Tonight starring Fred Willard, that gets the only laughs.
Worse, For Your Consideration finds Guest, who has said he does not read the Hollywood press, out of touch. Apart from a few cheeky nods to gossip appearing on the "Internet," Guest's vision of Hollywood is indistinguishable from that of 20 years ago, when the city could be set aflutter by trade magazines and Siskel & Ebert. The movie feels more dated than Robert Altman's The Player, and not nearly as withering in its attacks. For Your Consideration transforms Christopher Guest the director into a Christopher Guest character—self-serious, easily parodied, and, sadly, more than a little tone-deaf. But, hey, did you hear they improvised the whole thing?
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.