Sunday, March 22, 2015

SW Watches: Waiting for Guffman (1996)

I don't know that I've seen every one of Christopher Guest's films, but Jamie and I agreeing on Waiting for Guffman (1996) was a good sign when we were in our early courtship, and they've become a bit of a staple ever since.

I never did community theater, but I did participate in high school drama, doing some acting (I was so good, y'all) and stage work like lighting and building sets (I always liked the hammer and nails bit more than acting).  Jamie's family was heavily involved with community theater in the Lawton, Oklahoma epoch of their lives.   If you've not seen the movie, it's a pretty great character-driven, improvised comedy in the faux-documentary style of This is Spinal Tap or Best in Show.  The "doc" follows the good folks of Blaine, Missouri as they set about putting on a play to commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the town (that's 150th birthday for you folks who have never lived through your region celebrating the b-day).

The cast is pretty great.  To name a few:
  • Christopher Guest
  • Eugene Levy
  • Catherine O'Hara
  • Fred Willard
  • Parker Posey
  • Bob Balaban
But it's also briefly got Larry Miller, David Cross, Brian Doyle-Murray and two seconds of Bob Odenkirk, among others.  And many recognizable members of what I think could be reasonably considered the Guest's company of players.

Guest plays Corky St. Clair, a transplant to Blaine who had some sort of career in the theater in NYC, but it was a lot of off-off-off-Broadway lack of success, and now he's bringing stagecraft and the magic of the footlights to a town that hasn't had much experience.  He's written the stage show, and the film picks up just prior to auditions.  He's also deeply closeted in a town that, in the mid-90's, was not terribly ready to wrap their heads around a gay theater director (this was a thing, kids.  Ask your parents).  

The show set to go, Corky invites plenty of theatrical scouts from New York to come check out the show, and one actually responds.  For opening night (which is also closing night), everyone is on edge over the arrival over Mr. Guffman.

Mostly, the movie is really about the excitement of putting on a show, which is a bit universal - and all those Broadway actors don't just spring for the earth.  They come from towns, big and small, getting the bug at some point.  These actors just happen to be grown adults with jobs and in a bit of a rut, maybe, in the middle of Missouri.  Hence, the show is exciting to everyone, including the beleaguered city council.  

While the movie is written, it's absolutely improvised as well by all the characters, something we're all pretty familiar with seeing Fred Willard and Levy do at this point (not that it ever really gets old for me), with characters perhaps being ridiculous or silly, but still coming from a place, and that's where the characters really work (watch Catherine O'Hara in this.  Her character is on an existential journey that you only catch in bits and snatches).  

Production note:  The movie, set in Missouri, was shot outside of Austin in Bar-B-Q capitol, Lockhart.  So you'll see lots of Texas-in-the-90's tidbits if you know what you're looking for, from posters of Sam Houston in the high school to the standard "really nice courthouse in the middle of the town-square" layout that replicates across the state in many small towns, to Hutto t-shirts on a few kids.

I don't know that this one is quite as successful as Best in Show, and it doesn't have some of the weightier elements of A Mighty Wind or For Your Consideration (this one felt almost like improvised drama as much as comedy), but it's a great little movie, and I recommend.

At the time, it seems a lot of folks tried to follow Guest's lead, but somehow a lot of those "mockumentaries" wound up just feeling mean spirited rather than an exaggeration or skewed look at the topic (the format eventually made shows like The Office and Parks n' Rec).  I'm not really sure how Guest found the balance, because this could have been just another LA mockery of small town life - and while it certainly makes fun of the imaginary town of Blaine, it doesn't just mock all of fly-over space, and it always feels like it's on the side of its characters.  Even when you know this will end poorly, and that's no mean feat.

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