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Thursday
Nov162006

For Your Consideration

[National Review Online, November 17, 2006] 

Here’s a riddle: When do you leave a Christopher Guest movie feeling glum and discouraged?

When it’s not funny? No, “For Your Consideration” is by no means a dud. Fans of Guest’s recent films will find plenty of the same character-based absurdities here. It’s hilarious. Right up until the last fifteen minutes.

Just to recap, Guest made his name as the innovator of a comic genre, the “mocumentary” (a term he despises). His recent films were fake documentaries that sparkled with absurd improvised dialogue. And each of his recent films has been about people preparing for a show.

In “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), the citizens of Blaine, Missouri planned, rehearsed, and presented a hokey musical pageant. “Best in Show” (2000) tracked a handful of disparate dog-owners as they converged on a prestigious national competition. And in “A Mighty Wind” (2003) several folk-music acts, out of the limelight for decades, hastily prepared to put on a Carnegie Hall concert.

In each of these stories, the plot payoff is that we get to see a show – the production that all the previous foolishness has been skittering around. And in each case, the results are not solely buffoonery. There is an element of sweetness. You’re glad to see the good guys get some good desserts.

My guess is that “For Your Consideration” started out the same way. This time, we’re following the cast and crew and promoters and hangers-on as a Hollywood movie is being made. “For Your Consideration” is not strictly a mocumentary, because Guest has dispensed with the on-camera interviews; but he’s substituted scenes in which reporters do interviews, so the effect is similar.

The movie being filmed is titled “Home for Purim.” It’s a gas. Rachel Pisher has not been home for 12 years, but she promises to come this time because her mom, Esther, is dying. Dad and younger brother Sam are anxiously awaiting her arrival. By the way, “Home for Purim” is set during WW II, so Sam is wearing a sailor suit. Though he left the rest of his buddies doing battle in “the Galapagos Islands,” he’ll stay as long as needed, because “the Navy is very understanding about sickness and death.” His dad murmurs that this is a kind thing for Sam to do, a mitzvah. Sam protests: “It ain’t no dang mitzvah, Daddy!” Oh yeah, “Home for Purim” is set in the shady-porched, wisteria-twined Deep South.

But when Rachel arrives, she’s accompanied by a (polite cough) “friend” named Mary Pat Hooligan. Mary Pat wears a subdued pants suit, no makeup, and a severe expression. When Sam asks if she lives near Rachel, she tells him that they sleep in the same bed. Will Esther be able to take this crushing revelation? As a character later notes, “Dying is easy. Playing a lesbian is hard.”

You can see that Guest and his buddies put a lot of thought into “Home for Purim;” it even has an original Guest-written theme song, not to mention its own pitch-perfect website. http://wip.warnerbros.com/foryourconsideration/homeforpurim/

And as you picture Guest’s usual cast, you can begin slotting in the regulars like a desk clerk sorting mail: Catherine O’Hara as actress Marilyn Hack (portraying Esther Pisher), Harry Shearer as actor Victor Allan Miller (Dad Pisher), Parker Posey as Callie Webb (Rachel Pisher), Christopher Moynihan as Brian Chubb (Sam Pisher), and Rachael Harris as Debbie Gilchrist (Mary Pat Hooligan).

The rest of the gang show up in all the roles necessary to film, produce, promote and critique a Hollywood movie. If you’ve been looking forward to seeing them again, they’re here: Eugene Levy (who also co-wrote with Guest), Ed Begley Jr., John Michael Higgins, Jennifer Coolidge, Don Lake, Michael Hitchcock, Bob Balaban, Michael McKean, Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, Larry Miller … well, you begin to see a problem. There are some astonishingly talented folks here, but there sure are a lot of them. Many fill roles that are only tangentially connected to the plot. Few get the screen time they deserve.

The pros make the most of it: Jane Lynch co-hosts a TV show with Fred Willard, and one scene opens with a shot of her standing on the set. I can’t explain it, but just the way she is *standing* is hilarious. Jennifer Coolidge again plays the oversized, over-dressed, surreal blonde ditz, and has never been better. Here she is trying to tell a flirtacious Ricky Gervais the kind of restaurant she likes best: “Latesian…” (“Latino?”) “No…Lesion…” (“That’s, um, a wound.”) “No… it’s people who speak Latin.”

Don Lake and Michael Hitchcock make a great visual contrast as the “Love It” and “Hate It” film critic duo; Hitchcock has never looked so unrelievedly furious. And John Michael Higgins is great as a studio PR exec who is unfamiliar with the “world wide interweb,” who conveys information “in further particulariness,” and who warns a reporter: “Inside every actor there is a Tiger, a Pig, an Ass, and a Nightingale. You never know which one is going to show up.”

But the “Home for Purim” centerpiece has a rationale and energy that “For Your Consideration” lacks. What did Guest intend to do with this setup? Did he try different approaches, and land here when all else failed? At any rate, it’s a movie that ends on a down note – even with a flash of cruelty, which leaves a sour taste. Until that point, though, it’s consistently funny. Inside Christopher Guest there is a parodist, a musician, an actor, a director, a writer, and a wild card. You never know which one is going to show up.

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