2 December 2006 | EUyeshima
Skewering Oscar Buzz with Laughs and Surprising Vitriol on Guest's Non-Mockumentary Satire
I look forward to Christopher Guest movies in the same way Ralphie did for his much beloved Red Ryder BB Gun in "A Christmas Story". Drenched with his deadpan wit, Guest's mockumentaries have been such well-targeted show business satires that it's hard to know when the script stops and the improvised reality begins. But that's a lot of the fun with his films, even though his newest is easily the most structured of the bunch. Along with constant co-writer and co-star Eugene Levy, Guest picks a target ripe with possibilities in this 2006 comedy, the Oscar-baiting season prior to the nominations, and surprisingly foregoes the direct interview format in favor of a more traditional narrative. I have to admit I miss some of this dynamic because the on-camera realism resulted in some of the funniest moments in the previous films.
Gratefully, what has been kept from his other films is Guest's stellar ensemble company of comic actors, and this time an even larger cast has been gathered, none of whom disappoint in this outing. The plot focuses on the production of a low-budget studio-bound film, "Home for Purim", a WWII-era family melodrama about a Jewish family in Georgia coping with the mother's terminal illness and the daughter's emergence as a lesbian. Directed by an authoritarian nebbish with an Art Garfunkel hairdo named Jay Berman, the film looks to be an overly sincere piece of tripe, but a blogger on one of the movie sites has predicted leading lady Marilyn Hack, a resigned, over-the-hill B-actress, will be nominated for an Oscar. This starts an Oscar buzz that engulfs the two other nominal principals of the movie, hot-dog pitchman Victor Allen Miller and "serious" actress Callie Webb, and the tidal wave of publicity drastically changes the direction and marketing campaign of the movie even before it's completed.
Guest and Levy fully capture the superficial pandering that occurs when the buzz is in full swing, and they particularly ridicule the ignorance and outdated thinking of those who find themselves in this lightning-in-a-bottle situation. There are acidic jabs at all the infotainment programs - "Entertainment Tonight", "MTV TRL", "The Charlie Rose Show" and "Ebert & Roeper" but this is character-driven farce, and several stand out. In a brave turn as Marilyn, the wonderful and ever-dependable Catherine O'Hara superbly captures the almost overnight evolution from forgotten, timeworn actress into botox-infused, cleavage-squeezing A-lister wannabe. Harry Shearer gets his best showcase yet as the put-upon Victor whose mouthy agent Morley Orfkin refuses to take his calls until the buzz hits them. As Callie, Parker Posey is more in reactive mode here, though she has a funny Sandra Bernhard-like bit with her character's one-woman show, "No Penis Intended".
Everyone else gets less screen time, but they all provide memorably riotous contributions Guest as Berman, Levy as Morley, Jennifer Coolidge as clueless producer Whitney Taylor Brown, John Michael Higgins as bromide-spouting publicist Corey Taft, Don Lake and Michael Hitchcock as the Love It/Hate It movie critics, Michael McKean and Bob Balaban as the academic screenwriters, Ed Begley Jr. as Marilyn's fey hairdresser (and biggest fan), Ricky Gervais as the oily studio honcho, and best of all, as the entertainment TV co-hosts, Fred Willard as mohawk-moussed Chuck Porter and Jane Lynch as gam-showcasing Mary Hart-knockoff Cindy Martin. I imagine Guest's reputation is the reason you see such high-profile actors like Sandra Oh and Craig Bierko in nothing more than bit parts here. The film takes a sharp turn toward the end that adds surprising vitriol to the laughs, and the vituperative tone makes the proceedings all the more devastating and resonant. More like "A Mighty Wind" with its dramatic undercurrents, this one is not as laugh-out-loud as "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best in Show", but it shows a continuing maturation in Guest's film-making technique that is most welcome.