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Folk Implosion

The Secret to Christopher Guest's Comedic Success Is Neither a Secret nor a Lie

From left, Shearer, McKean and Guest as the Folksmen.

Fellow Travelers: The ensemble cast of Christopher Guest's "mockumentary" A Mighty Wind take the stage.

By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted

With the deft A Mighty Wind, writer/director Christopher Guest confirms himself as American film's answer to Mike Leigh. Never mind that Leigh (the British director behind such modern classics as Naked and Secrets and Lies) produces some of the most emotionally grueling films around, whereas Guest whips up some of the most uproarious; in the way they work with actors to create living, breathing human beings, Guest and Leigh are two peas of the same pod. While their approach as directors differ, both take similar pains to include their actors in the authorship of their films. In Leigh's case, actors create their characters in collaboration with the director; while Leigh finalizes his films' dialogue, it springs from rigorously refined improvisations between the cast members. Guest, on the other hand, crafts scenarios for his company of regulars with co-writer Eugene Levy, but each actor improvises every word of dialogue he or she speaks.

Despite these subtle but significant differences, both directors deliver characters that seem impossibly real, even if some of their traits are magnified or caricaturized. And if Leigh's films specialize in chilling epiphanies and cathartic confrontations, the yin to their yang can be found in Guest's carefully observed comedic explosions. A Mighty Wind doesn't quite attain the comedic perfection of Guest's last two projects, Waiting for Guffman (1996) and Best in Show (2000), but it still testifies to the strength of his working methods. After all, Wind belongs in the same league as those films, which is to say it puts most other comedies to shame.

After skewering community theater productions and obsessive dog owners, Guest gives the world of folk music a comparably gentle ribbing this time around. The untimely death of a folk music promoter and enthusiast prompts his neurotic son, Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban), to organize an all-star memorial performance. This proves easier said than done, as many of the 1950s and '60s folk groups have disbanded, including former singing duo/lovers Mitch (Levy) and Mickey (Catherine O'Hara), who haven't spoken to each other for years; in fact, Mitch went catatonic as a result of their breakup. Meanwhile, the Folksmen (Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Guest, the same trio at the core of Guest's Rob Reiner-directed working template, This Is Spinal Tap) can't remember their songs too well, and the sanitized, frighteningly chipper, revival act the New Main Street Singers take a break from amusement park gigs to prepare for the big night.

A Mighty Wind builds quickly to the tribute concert--performed live by the cast--that is its fictional raison d'etre. But the music, while priceless, takes up so much screen time that you get the sense that many great subplots got squeezed out. Parker Posey plays Sissy Knox, a next-generation folkster whose suitably sordid backstory is detailed, and then dropped. Similarly, Mickey's new husband seems pivotal early on in the film, but the concert renders him just another spectator. As the DVDs for Tap, Guffman, and Best in Show testify, Guest cuts a lot of amazing material to whittle his films down. This film would justify a longer running time, to give us more chances to get to know these people before they burst into song.

Guest handles these characters' foibles more gently than in past films, but A Mighty Wind still boasts some unforgettable comedy. As usual, Guest structures his film as a mock documentary, allowing for some hilarious flashbacks on these folksters in their glory years, as well as some lovingly rendered faux album covers. But above all else, the film confirms that Guest rep player Fred Willard has become some sort of comedic genius. In Best in Show he portrayed a clueless sportscaster demoted to covering dog competitions; here he appears as Mike LaFontaine, an ill-mannered folk-act manager. Both characters are idea men whose ideas stink, pestering everyone around them with their overbearing and crass humor. As much as any other performer out there, Willard understands that there's nothing funnier than someone who's painfully unfunny. Since he's always able and willing to enter that zone, Willard dominates every scene in which he appears.

Even in Willard's anarchic performance, shades of Mike Leigh shine through. Although Willard's character is far from the focus of the film, he walks away with its most memorable one-liners, just as Ruth Sheen's supporting character did in Leigh's recent All or Nothing. With Guest and Leigh alike, one senses that even those actors with one line of dialogue spent months researching, shaping, and finally becoming their characters. If we value comedic and dramatic genius equally--and why shouldn't we?--it's time to recognize that these two directors come similarly equipped with peerless reserves of devastating satire and empathy.

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