Waiting for Guffman is such a funny mess that it keeps you laughing even when you realize it's not much better directed than a cable-access talk show. Christopher Guest's is-this-where-I-point-the-camera? auteurism, last seen in The Big Picture, is redeemed by the performers -- himself most of all -- and the material they worked up from improvisations. (Guest and Eugene Levy, who costars, are credited with the screenplay.) Framed as a documentary about the staging of a local-talent musical in the town of Blaine, Missouri, the film is a triumph of inspiration over craft. The musical celebrates Blaine's 150th anniversary, and Waiting for Guffman also is a celebration: It shows you just how hilarious a movie can be when you gather together a great cast -- including Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Lewis Arquette, and Bob Balaban -- and allow their comic antennae full sway.
I'm a sucker for comedies about life in the theater in the same way I'm a sucker for stand-up comedy even when it's bad -- the flop sweat and petty rages and cast-iron narcissism are in themselves entertaining; it may not be possible to appreciate great theater without also appreciating bad theater. What unites these appreciations is a love for playacting in all its glorious self-aggrandizing nuttiness. Waiting for Guffman is the most piffling of piffles, but it makes you smile at its troupers' puffed-up exertions.
Everybody on view is seriously deluded: the cast putting on the show, the town council that sanctions it, the audience members who eat it up. It's as if we were watching a mass hallucination -- which, in essence, is what all theater is. Corky St. Clair (Guest) is the writer-director-choreographer-costumer of Red, White and Blaine, and he has the unbounded egomania of a monster artiste -- without, of course, the artistry. Swept away by his own nudnik brainstorms, he convinces the talentless and the gullible -- which includes just about everybody -- that he's a genius.
Corky is the epitome of froufrou show-biz vanity. Guest gives his diva-ness a distinctive spin. Watching Corky mince and wiggle, you might think he's a butterfly. But he's an iron butterfly -- he knows how to preen to get what he wants, and when that doesn't work he goes a bit banshee in the head. His hair-trigger tantrums catch you by surprise. You wait for them -- they're like little electrostatic arias -- just as you wait for his prodigious costume changes. (They usually go together.) He dresses for success: loud polka-dot pullovers; a T-shirt with Judy Tenuta's face on it; a corseted, drum-majorette-looking jacket. Retreating from a disastrous meeting with the town council, where his budget request for $100,000 is rejected, the shower-capped Corky soaks at home in a bubble bath while Mexican music tinkles from his cassette player. He's blissed out by unblinking rage -- a dying swan frothing in his own suds.
Corky is a flaming revue-sketch caricature, and Guest goes all the way with him; he's a sketch that's fully filled in. We put together his past: He spent time in the navy, then flipped onto the New York theater scene in its off-off-off-off-Broadway environs. He craves a return to glamour, and he sees Red, White and Blaine as his ticket to Broadway. He has pinned all his hopes on Guffman, a New York theatrical agent he invited to the show's opening night.
So has his cast. Dr. Allan Pearl (Levy), the town dentist with goggle-thick glasses, traces his performing roots to his Yiddish-theater grandfather, whose signature song was "Bubby Made a Kishke." Pearl's audition medley takes off from an almost surreally out-of-tune "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair." Married travel agents Ron and Sheila Albertson (Willard and O'Hara), all plastic smiles and plastic hearts, audition for Corky in leisure jump suits while murdering "Midnight at the Oasis." (They fancy themselves the Lunts of Blaine.) Dairy Queen counter girl Libby Mae Brown (Posey) does a wiggly, cutesy-poo "Teacher's Pet." She's coming on to Corky without really thinking about what she's doing or to whom. He's flattered -- and flummoxed. Transfixed by the wealth of talent before him, he muses, "You find people.... Is it karma?"
Amid the blandness of Blaine, Corky might appear to be practically extraterrestrial. But the more you get to know its citizens the more you realize Corky is in his element. Town legend has it that Blaine was visited by UFOs in the 1940s, and a grizzled abductee (Paul Dooley) remembers his probe-a-thon. At a Chinese restaurant with the uptight Dr. Pearl and his wife (Linda Kash), the Albertsons get boozy and bawdy. Sheila, in her girl-talk mode, leans in to Mrs. Pearl to ask, "What's it like to be with a circumcised man?" The sexual/ethnic humor in Guffman is proudly off-color and out of bounds.
You'd have to be pretty humorless to take offense at all the target practice in Guffman, especially since the way everybody preens their nutsiness is weirdly endearing. One reason Guffman is more enjoyable than, say, Fargo is that Guest and his co-conspirators are so eager to please. Their lampooning is a form of affection -- both for us and for the people they are making fun of. The Coen brothers reserved their affection in Fargo for just one character, Frances McDormand's pregnant police chief; all the rest were freeze-dried joke butts.
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.
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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.