7.30.2013

Waiting for Guffman (1996)

Corky St. Clair: I had been living in New York and working there as an actor and a director and choreographer for twenty-five years or so and I really felt as though I needed a change. I imagined in my fantasy I suppose, that when I came here, I would have a completely different life. Perhaps a construction worker. Or one of those guys that works on those high wire things, with a hard hat, one of those sweeping sorts of hats. [Gesture with hands indicating brim the size of a Disney Princess's hairdo.] With the chaps...

The true gift of Waiting for Guffman is the dynamite combination of deadpan lines and deadpan delivery. As gifted comic actor David Hyde Pierce put it, people laugh harder when the person telling the joke doesn't laugh at all. Christopher Guest seems to understand this comic truth. He is a co-writer of This is Spinal Tap and a driving creative force of several more mockumentaries like A Mighty Wind


Nobody laughs in Waiting for Guffman except the audience. And most of the time the laughter isn't unkindly. These are people being people--the small town mayor trying to whip up some civic pride with not a lot to talk about except it's not a bad place to live. They're people we know--the travel agent who doesn't get out much. Okay, and sometimes they're the people we wish we didn't know--the milquetoast uncle who insists on trying to re-enact a scene from Raging Bull. And there's always the guy in the coffee shop who was abducted by aliens and wants to talk about the probing.

The premise of this fast-paced film is simple. It's Blaine's 150th anniversary and Corky is charged with putting on a show. Everybody knows he's the only creative type in Blaine, that is, if you don't count the long-suffering music teacher (Bob Balaban) who has been producing an annual musical for years and has been demoted to make way for the flamboyant Corky. It is one of the ironies of the production that the only truly talented professional is, of course, the music teacher. But I digress.

Corky assembles his cast. Of course he wants the Albertsons, who always star in everything and whose life is one long, studied pose after another. Ron (Fred Willard) does impressions and his loyal wife, Sheila, (Cathleen O'Hara) always asks who that was so no one else has to. Sheila starts all the dances off on the wrong foot, but they come to auditions prepared, and in matching track suits. You know this couple. We all know this couple. Then there's the dentist (Eugene Levy) whose primary talent is confidence, and the cheerleader (Parker Posey) who wants to get out of Blaine. Plus there's a surrounding cast of townspeople who add to the interviews and round out the quirky quilt that results in a magical night of small town musical theater. The cast has been told, too, that a mysterious Mr. Guffman from New York will see their event and they have a chance to make the big time. 

The story primarily revolves around Corky and his creativity, which is not without merit. He has great ideas but thank goodness there are plenty of practical stage crew and craftspeople building sets and sewing costumes because follow-through is not Corky's strong point. He much prefers dance rehearsal and acting exercises and shopping for clothes for his wife, the wife, uh, that no one has ever met.

Anyone who knows how theater works backstage knows that drama is why some people are there. At one point Corky of course quits, the cast runs crying to his door. The city fathers beg him to come back. His groupy (Blaine is small, and I think that's the singular of groupies) weeps. Corky relents, everyone applauds and all is well. The show goes on. Cue the orchestra.

It would be easy for the people of Blaine to be caricatures, but a few stay just this side of that line. Cathleen O'Hara's Sheila Albertson believes that her glib husband is more talented than she is and so she takes his notes, which makes her performances manic. Bob Balaban's music teacher seethes with understandable, inchoate rage and then he glows with exultation when his (kickass) overture is finally performed. When the show seems lost, Parker Posey is both bleak and brave trying to cheer herself up by saying, "I'll always have a place at the Dairy Queen."

Guest and his fellow co-star Eugene Levy wrote the script and it is filled with gems that on the page don't seem like much, but combined with comic talent are true howlers. Why Blaine became the stool capital of the world. The description of My Dinner with Andre Action Figures.  How challenges were made in the olden days. What it feels like to be a Fabin in Blaine. How the crop circle changes circumference and diameter but never the radius.

In later efforts, like Best in Show and For Your Consideration, the touch of humanity is lacking, and I don't find them as rewatchable as Guffman. Guffman portrays people wanting just a moment in the sun, a little dream to hold on to as they go through the kind of lives most of us have, and they are willing to follow the big dreaming Corky. So we laugh at them a little bit and follow their dream--while it lasts. If we were the feature in a documentary of our lives we might not fare so well either.

Waiting for Guffman (1996) at IMDB

One-Line Summary Waiting for Guffman (1996):  Christopher Guest's best mockumentary gently scalds both big city theater drama and small town wannabees with fantastic deadpan performances in a rocket fast 80 minutes.

What's It Worth? Waiting for Guffman (1996): The friends you convince to have a watch will thank you, so you'd better have the DVD handy. Collect it.

Watch it Again? Waiting for Guffman (1996): Yes, you won't find a point where it's easy to turn it off once you start. It was on last night. I was hooked from the first frame. Ridiculously lots.