It’s Pronounced Jolly

Christopher Guest is a divisive figure in the comedy world.  The comedies he makes with his stock company of gifted improvisers — ranging from This is Spinal Tap to For Your Consideration — tend to be loved by critics and fans, but Guest also has a reputation (well-earned, from my personal experience) as a difficult interview whose relationship with those same critics and fans is standoffish at best and confrontational at worst.  He seems capable of only telling one particular story, but he tells it with supreme skill and undeniable humor.  He lacks many of the essential tools of filmmaking; his work is not created with a masterful eye, he lacks empathy with his characters, he isn’t especially gifted as a storyteller, his plots are repetitive and barely there, and he almost never strays out of his comfort zone. But what he does, he does extraordinarily well:  he is painfully funny, he has a razor-sharp eye for telling details, he can wrest a surprising amount of emotional power out of an absurd situation, he never fails to bring out the best in his performers, and whether he really cares about his characters or not, he creates extremely memorable ones.  He’s the very definition of a specialist, but he generally does what he does so well that it’s hard to make any coherent objections.

That’s not really the case with his latest effort, Mascots, which I’d characterize as the first of his films in which his shortcomings outweigh his talents to a noticeable degree.  Made for and debuting on Netflix, Mascots is a lean hour and a half long, but it seems both too long and too short at the same time:  its pacing is a mess, one of the most distracting aspects of a movie that has some funny moments but overall plays like something that, were it more traditionally scripted, should have been seriously reworked in the draft stage.  Half the time, it feels rushed; the characters — of whom there seem to be too many — are never really given the chance to develop, and the miniature absurdities of Guest’s delusional strivers, always the richest vein of comedy in his work, don’t get enough attention to be as compelling as the ones in his other films.  But the other half of the time, it seems padded:  scenes go on too long without laughs, subplots appear and never really go anywhere, and notions that suggest they’re going to build into something more just seem to fall off the table.

Mascots‘ plot is a pretty simple variation on the theme Guest has been whittling away at since the late 1970s:  a ragtag bunch of misfits, losers, and goofballs — this time a ludicrous aggregation of sports team mascots — come together at a critical moment — this time a national competition called the Fluffies, which is vying for national respectability via a television contract.  Each goes through a personal crisis, usually of their own making, before the big moment, which leads them to personal growth or decay, which we learn about in a typical one-year-later segment near the end of the movie. Guest assembles all his regulars for Mascots:  Jane Lynch as an egocentric former mascot who has monetized her past into a career as a self-help guru and the always-funny Ed Begley Jr. as her arch-rival, whose spiel about micro-penis acceptance is probably the movie’s biggest laugh-out-loud moment; Bob Balaban and Jennifer Coolidge as a sports maven and his ex-call-girl wife; Fred Willard as a clueless, easily distracted trainer; John Michael Higgins as a jaded TV executive (along with newcomer/Pistol Shrimp Maria Blasucci as his partner and lover); Parker Posey as a damaged New Age interpretive dancer; and Michael Hitchcock in the Michael Hitchcock role.  Harry Shearer has a minor part as the event announcer, and Guest himself reprises his legendary Waiting for Guffman role as fey theatrical gadabout Corky St. Clair; while he’s not on screen often enough to generate any big laughs, just seeing him again is a huge treat.

The new additions are almost all excellent.  Zach Woods and Sarah Baker are outstanding as a minor-league double act whose marriage is a sham and whose dislike for one another is barely concealed; they have a reluctant kiss at the movie’s end that’s another hilarious highlight.  Tom Bennett and Kerry Godliman are pure charm as a pair of Brits whose story is meant to be Mascots‘ emotional center; that doesn’t quite carry over, but they’re still highly enjoyable whenever they’re on screen.  Susan Yeagley of Parks and Recreation is fantastic as Posey’s trashy sister.  And best of all is Chris O’Dowd as The Fist, the “bad boy of mascottery” who is banned from even the rough-and-tumble of Canadian minor-league hockey games for his lewd and violent behavior.  It’s who’s missing that makes the biggest difference:  most of Guest’s films were co-written with SCTV alum Eugene Levy, who’s not involved with this one.  His absence is felt both in the comedy — there’s plenty of mild chuckles, but far too few of the killer big laughs we’ve come to demand from this troupe — and in the drama, which is flat and inert, lacking any kind of real involvement for the audience.  Without Levy’s ability to create a weird sympathetic alchemy with these castoffs, we’re left with Guest’s attitude towards them, which borders on contempt.  Guest’s writing partner this time out is Jim Piddock, who does his best to replicate the formula, making his own character’s paternal relationship with Bennett the central emotional arc, but it just doesn’t work, and the result is a big hole where the rest of the movie ought to be.

It’s not that there isn’t anything to enjoy in Mascots.  There’s plenty of individual moments that get laughs.  But the entire enterprise put together seems a bit joyless and tired, rushed in its pacing and confused in its empathies.  It’s a satire without a good target, a parody of a dying artform, and a character study whose characters never really gel.  The centerpiece of Mascots — the actual competition between the costumed clods — is terribly short on laughs, has very little conflict or stakes, and plays in miniature like the work of Guest himself:  a creative guy who’s forgotten what he got into this business for in the first place.

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