Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 11, 2017)
After many years in the business, Christopher Guest established a nice little niche for himself as the director of improvised, documentary-style comedies. As part of 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, he helped pioneer the “mockumentary”.
After Tap, Guest created 1996’s Waiting For Guffman and launched his own little mini-empire of “mockumentaries”. Guffman examines a sesquicentennial pageant in the small town of Blaine, Missouri.
For the climax of this celebration, the burg will stage a musical theater presentation of its history. At the center of this production stands Corky St. Clair (Guest), a frustrated émigré from the world of Broadway, where he never achieved much success.
Still, within the provincial world of Blaine, this minor connection to the Great White Way makes him a major talent. As a result, Corky staged triumphant - for Blaine - versions of programs that included the movie Backdraft.
Corky recruits high school teacher Lloyd Miller (Bob Balaban) to act as musical director, but the city council’s decision to hand the entire production to Corky doesn’t sit well with Lloyd. However, Lloyd is virtually the only divergent voice, as the rest of the town falls over themselves to defer to Corky’s “expert” judgment.
For the performers, Corky auditions locals. These include travel agents Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), veterans of past St. Clair productions.
In the newcomer category we find dentist Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), Dairy Queen hostess Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey), gruff old Clifford Wooley (Lewis Arquette), and auto mechanic Johnny Savage (Matt Keeslar). Corky has to actively convince the last two to take part in the performance.
While Wooley makes sense for the role of an Our Town-style narrator, Corky’s interest in Johnny seems to be more than professional, though no one appears to suspect any gay tendencies in him. After all, Corky has a wife, albeit one none of the townsfolk have ever met or seen.
As the rehearsals progress, Corky receives stunning news. Due to a letter he sent to Broadway talent, a representative of a production company named Mort Guffman will travel to Blaine to check out the show. With him comes the potential promise that the program might eventually make it to the Great White Way.
Of course, we recognize that this would never happen, as the production is painfully - but amusingly - amateurish. Nonetheless, the participants pin their hopes and dreams on this prospect, and the film displays the ways in which they react to the results.
All of the “mockumentaries” on which Guest has worked took on fairly easy targets. It doesn’t require much to spoof the worlds of heavy metal rock, dog shows, 60s folk music or small town theater productions, as all three inherently parody themselves to a certain degree.
The other films worked so well partly from the feeling that they offered affectionate looks at the material. I never thought that Tap or Show felt mean-spirited or condescending.
As for Guffman, I’m not so sure. While it clearly doesn’t provide a cruel depiction of its participants, they feel less well-rounded and endearing than I expected.
Corky himself feels especially hard to embrace, as he seems like a neurotic, self-absorbed megalomaniac for the most part. Guest offers much more warm and gentle performances as Tap’s Nigel Tufnel or Show’s Harlan Pepper, but those sides rarely appear as Corky.
Corky’s an amusing role, but Guest makes him a bit too catty, and the choice to play him as gay pushes matters a little further in the negative way. Yes, this broad portrayal makes sense for this sort of spoof, but it comes across as a little too harsh at times.
Of course, not all of the characters in Show were likable either, so that’s not a tremendous flaw, but some of the rougher edges seen in the roles make the film a bit less accessible. As for the other participants, they seem to be more endearing - with the exception of Ron Albertson - but I feel that the parts seem less distinct than those in Best In Show.
In that film, the participants stood out fairly nicely, which the folks in Guffman lack the same dimensionality. That was odd, since Show had more main characters than does Guffman. Nonetheless, the former offers better-developed personalities.
I also feel that Guffman offers a less focused project than Show. Both work toward a climactic ending, but Guffman seems less centered along the way.
For example, while the discussions of UFO visits to Blaine provide laughs, they seem to be out of place and unconnected from the film as a whole. They pay off somewhat during “Red, White and Blaine”, but I still feel the whole concept comes across as superfluous and disjointed.
Show featured many of the same cast and crew, and I think that’s part of the reason it worked better. Granted, many of these folks knew each other and worked together for years pre-Guffman, but Guffman became the first time this specific group did a full feature film in such a style.
As such, I’d expect that the comfort level was higher during Show, which made it flow more effortlessly and smoothly. In some ways, Guffman feels like a dry run for the more coherent and funny Show.
I don’t want all of my comments to make it sound as though I didn’t like Guffman. In actuality, I think it delivers an entertaining and clever piece.
All of the performers offer solid work, and the material feels much wittier and better developed than what we see in most movies today. For comedy fans, I won’t hesitate for a second to recommend Guffman. I like the film and I’ll be happy to watch it again.
My only reservations occur because it doesn’t live up to the heights of Spinal Tap or Best In Show. Nonetheless, it’s still a fun piece of work that should work well through repeated screenings.
Two random comments: 1) Take note of the songwriters who composed Guffman’s tunes, as they also were responsible for the music in another noted mockumentary.
2) Guffman earned an “R” rating, though it didn’t seem to offer enough potentially-objectionable material to warrant that mark. The culprit appeared to be an audition piece seen in the film, as one of the aspiring thespians used a profanity-laced monologue from Raging Bull. Too many “F”-words for the MPAA, I guess, so Guffman got an undeserved “R”.