Inspiring Minds

Snideness can count for a lot in the movies these days. We've become so inured to comedies in which no offense is given or taken that a Fargo, or a Citizen Ruth, can seem "smart" and "daring." And so they are. Their problem is, that's all they are. They flaunt a tone of wiseass superiority. But what makes these filmmakers so superior, anyway? What really seems to be going on in these movies is plain old-fashioned class-conscious putdowns. The real deadness in Fargo isn't the Minnesota tundra but the deadness of the rural middle class. In Citizen Ruth we're invited to chortle at an antiabortion couple because they live near a noisy airport; they're being targeted for -- of all things -- living in a crummy neighborhood.

Cooked in a cultural climate in which whomping the "lower" classes is on the rise, these movies represent fallout from the PC wars. So it's more important than ever to distinguish the mean-spiritedness of Fargo from the embracing looniness of Guffman. The agenda in Guffman isn't really political; it's closer to vaudevillian. The cast comes out of the counterculture vaudeville circuit: SCTV, Saturday Night Live, the Ace Trucking Company, Second City, the Committee. What they do to Blaine, Missouri -- alias Anytown, USA -- is both a sendup and a salute. The film is a tribute to screw-loose Americana.

Because the people who made this movie are theater people, that screwiness is refracted through the lens of a community-theater extravaganza. Guffman has some of the funniest bad-performance material since the British comedy The Tall Guy -- which featured a deadpan Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque musical of The Elephant Man, called Elephant! -- and This Is Spin¬al Tap.

The connection to Spin¬al Tap is, in fact, umbilical: Guest played lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel in that film, which was produced by Guffman's producer, Karen Murphy, and directed by Rob Reiner, who is a partner in Guffman's distribution company, Castle Rock; Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, who also starred in Spin¬al Tap, co-wrote with Guest the Red, White and Blaine musical numbers.

Guffman isn't up to Spin¬al Tap. The roving documentary camera crew idea never takes hold, and a few sequences are so formless we might be watching a compilation reel of outtakes. Guest as a performer is ecstatically eager to please -- and that's great. There are few performers who can give us as much pleasure as he can when he's really cooking. But as a director he's trying to please too many people; he's like a talk-show host who lets his guests all jabber at once. One reason the musical numbers work so well in Guffman is that they're tightly structured in a way the rest of the film isn't. They're designed to pay off. (The mock musical numbers in Mel Brooks's comedies had the same bracing effect on his waywardness.) Guest filmed the movie in the cheap, fast, super-16mm format, and reportedly he shot more than 60 hours of material -- for a film that runs about a hundred minutes. For a piffle, that's one helluva shooting ratio.

Still, I would like to see some of the stuff that was left out. With a cast this good, there must be some gems. Formlessness isn't the worst thing in a comedy -- it can keep things loose and improvisatory -- and nobody is expecting Guest to be the next Lubitsch. He leaves his imprint on Waiting for Guffman in other ways. When last we see Corky St. Clair, he's guiding us through his new movie-memorabilia shop -- complete with My Dinner with Andre action figures and a Remains of the Day lunch box. He talks to us about his upcoming role as Henry Higgins in a dinner-theater production of My Fair Lady. He tries out his accent on us. Corky is forever filled with hope, and in that batty optimism of his lies the true soul of show business.

Waiting for Guffman.
Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy; directed by Christopher Guest; with Guest, Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Lewis Arquette, and Bob Balaban.

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