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Craig's Movie Club
Film Reviews

Fake comedy documentaries reviewed with a discerning eye.

Films Reviewed:
...And God Spoke
Best in Show
Bob Roberts
A Mighty Wind
Waiting for Guffman

Arthur Borman's ...And God Spoke (The Making of...)

...And God Spoke is a hilarious mock documentary on the filming of a Bible movie that goes all wrong. That is the plot, but that is only the spine that holds all the gags together. The characters are the main attraction here.

Clive Walton (the "director") and Marvin Handleman (the "producer") are from the start obviously not fit to handle this kind of undertaking -- their previous films were all bad genre flicks. But Marvin thinks that this will be a great idea because of the target audience ("the biggest selling book in the world times seven dollars a ticket ... you do the math").

The caterer designs refreshments that follow the biblical theme (rolls and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish for the "loaves and fishes" motif, and a cooler labeled "Wine" that he says is "really just water"); "Adam" is a method actor who walks around the set nude; and "Eve" has a full-body tattoo. Not to mention the cinematographer who thinks he is shooting a Bergman film, the editor who likes to "bow hunt grizzly," the screenwriter who says that he didn't write the screenplay but that "God wrote it ... through me." And then there are "God" as played by a tripped-out ex-hippie, Eve Plumb from The Brady Bunch as "Mrs. Noah" (who is called to the set as "Jan ... I mean, Eve"), and Soupy Sales as "Moses" (who receives Coca-Cola® in addition to Commandments from the top of Mount Sinai -- "He has also given us this elixir").

But the real star of ...And God Spoke is Michael Hitchcock, who has since appeared in all of Christopher Guest's recent mockumentaries to varying success. His role as Bob the assistant director is a masterpiece of understatement, particularly in one scene where he tells a joke to the camera, but gets interrupted. Worth the price of the video alone, all the rest will be gravy.

...And God Spoke is a compact and consistently funny look at moviemaking behind the scenes when everything that can go wrong does. It has become a fixture in our household, along with Waiting for Guffman (which is as insightful on its own subject) and the other recent mockumentaries. Fans of those should enjoy this immensely.

Christopher Guest's Best in Show

Waiting for Guffman is one of my favorite films, so when I heard that Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy had written another mockumentary, I was thrilled to see it. Unfortunately, I was highly disappointed by Best in Show.

The first reason, I think, is the lack of music. Other films of this ilk have an additional layer of music that makes for a fuller experience as the songs are often as funny as the film. Additionally, Best in Show has not one likable character in it. The thing about This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and even A Mighty Wind is that you identify with the characters while you laugh at them. Every dog owner is--if not entirely despicable like the pair played by Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey (and I like both actors immensely)--so bland as to be uninteresting. Tack onto that the prevalence of easy jokes (the two gay couples and the just awful "two left feet" gag that never pays off) and you end up with a lesser film that could have been so much better. The funniest part to me is Fred Willard's turn as ignorant commentator.

Of course, this is only my opinion as there seem to be many people who love this film. Perhaps I just look for a little more in my movies, especially from this crew, and especially after the massively successful (from a narrative standpoint) Waiting for Guffman. Luckily, the same actors have redeemed themselves (for the most part, see below) with A Mighty Wind.

Tim Robbins' Bob Roberts

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

Poet, journeyman, folksinger, senatorial candidate -- those are how his fans describe Bob Roberts, the subject of a documentary by Terry Mitchell (really a "mockumentary" written and directed by its star, Tim Robbins). The camera follows Roberts around on his campaign trail against incumbent Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal) where he mostly presents the issues in songs, released on albums with Dylanesque titles like The Freewheelin' Bob Roberts and The Times They Are A-Changin' Back.

What I find most amazing is the ability of Robbins (and brother David) to write songs for Roberts that portray a political ideology 180 degrees from their own, and that are darn catchy to boot. A soundtrack of all the songs (never released because Robbins didn't want them heard out of the context of satire) would surely have been a solid seller -- but likely to what Robbins would have considered the wrong people.

Like in The Player, Robbins uses his baby face to make us sympathize with what is essentially a despicable character. Also as in that movie, many cameos enhance what we're watching. Seeing James Spader, Helen Hunt, Susan Sarandon, Peter Gallagher, Lynne Thigpen, Pamela Reed, Fred Ward, and Fisher Stevens deliver news pieces on Roberts, particularly within this documentary setting, is something that I can only describe as surreal.

The behind-the-scenes shots of campaigning are slow at best, often tedious. Alan Rickman plays the mind behind it all with his trademark over-the-top subtlety. The performances are all good, but Bob Roberts, really a one-trick pony to begin with, takes up too much of the viewer's time. A hackneyed subplot, involving radical journalist Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito) trying to sabotage Roberts' campaign, is unsure of itself. Are we supposed to support this man because Roberts is so obviously not what he seems, or dismiss him as the "lunatic" he is presented to be?

It's in the "moments" that Bob is best. The video for "Wall Street Rap" uses the much-mimicked titlecard aspect of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" while a scene where Roberts meets the local sheriff is taken straight from Don't Look Back. Meanwhile, in a sharp parody of the politics of Saturday Night Live (where Robbins debuted the Roberts character in a short film), Roberts goes on Cutting Edge Live as a musical guest. The host (John Cusack, who, to date, has made six films with Robbins) refuses to go on in protest and during the broadcast, assistant Carol (June Stein) gets herself fired by pulling the plug on the whole show.

But the darkly humorous tone of Bob Roberts becomes far too bitter and jaded for comfort when a chain of events revealng Roberts to be a liar goes on far too long and chooses a conventional way to wrap up.

Bob Roberts is a good idea that, unfortunately, runs itself dry. It would have best been suited to a shorter format -- an hour special on cable, perhaps, or as more short films on SNL, focusing on the "moments" above. As it is, there is a lot to like about it, but too much to like all of it.

Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind

After the classic Waiting for Guffman and the fiasco of Best in Show, I was torn in my desire to see A Mighty Wind. As small movies never come to my neck of the woods, I knew I would have to wait for it to come out on video. To tide me over, I got the soundtrack, which served to both satisfy me and lighten my suspicions about its quality.

I was both right and wrong. A Mighty Wind is better--much better--than Best in Show but not as good as Waiting for Guffman. When the manager of 1960s folk bands the Folksmen, Mitch & Mickey, and the Main Street Singers dies, his son (Bob Balaban) organizes a tribute concert to his memory. The trouble comes in reassembling the bands again, particularly Mitch of Mitch & Mickey, who has spent the last several years in a mental hospital.

One of the downsides of A Mighty Wind is held firmly in the role of Mitch played by Eugene Levy. His performance is masterful, but it appears almost to be in the wrong film. If one truly empathizes with what his character has gone through, it is saddening. Yet, it is being played for laughs. And, as it is laughs I expect from this film, this makes it unsuccessful. I am unsure whether to laugh or cry.

Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer (the former members of Spinal Tap) are excellent together as the Folksmen. They have mastered this kind of music just as they did heavy metal. Additionally, their chemistry is still palpable. Shearer and Guest each mug a bit, but this is to be expected; it is a mockery of the styles of these performers, after all.

John Michael Higgins (who played Michael McKean's ostentatious partner in Best in Show) and Jane Lynch (Jennifer Coolidge's lesbian love interest in the same film) of the New Main Street Singers come across the best as they play it straight and let the laughs come from their characters naturally. Of course, I found an instant laugh in the irony that the two most dramatic gay characters from Best in Show are married to each other in A Mighty Wind.

Balaban (the musical director in Guffman) has a fun part as the son of the dead manager. His dislike of folk music does not hold back his interest in organizing this tribute. Balaban is a master of frustration; his eyes show it all, and reactions are his specialty. His pairing with Michael Hitchcock as Hitchcock attempts to explain all the technicalities of a television broadcast in the funniest scene in the film.

A Mighty Wind is a really good look at the characters in the folk community and shows that the actors have not lost their touch. Making another Guffman is out of the question now with so many great actors at their disposal, but as long as Guest and company keep making movies that are touching and funny, I'll still be right there watching. Improvisation is an art that is showing a resurgence in the form of these movies and the television show "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" and I, for one, am glad to see it happen.

Waiting for Guffman DVD Cover Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman

Christopher Guest is probably best known for being the alter ego of Nigel Tufnel, lead guitarist of Spinal Tap in the film This is Spinal Tap. What people often miss out on are his multiple talents. For example, in This is Spinal Tap, Guest not only gave a wonderfully silly, yet nuanced performance as the band's vapid guitar player, but he also co-wrote (with Rob Reiner, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) the screenplay and co-wrote (also with Reiner, McKean, and Shearer) all of the band's songs on the soundtrack. This sort of "renaissance man" behavior would lead anyone to expect great things on the horizon from Guest.

And almost fifteen years later, it happened.

Waiting for Guffman is the story of the residents of Blaine, Missouri, celebrating its sesquicentennial (150th anniversary). With the help of Corky St. Clair (Guest), a Broadway veteran, they are going to put on a musical called Red, White, and Blaine. During rehearsals, Corky gets a letter stating that casting director Mort Guffman is coming to town to see the show. The cast gets really excited and puts on the show of their lives.

...With a man who appears to be Mort Guffman sitting in the front row...

Guffman is really the story behind the play, however. A story that anyone who has ever done community theatre will identify with. Particularly anyone who has ever done really bad community theatre.

But along with being a stunning satire on local theatre troupes, Waiting for Guffman is also almost totally improvised. Apart from the songs, which were written before, the actors were only given direction (by writers Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy) as to what should happen in a given scene, then were given free reign to improvise their own dialogue. This is what brings Waiting for Guffman to Recommendation level.

That and the fact that it's the funniest movie I've ever seen.

Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara co-star and Blaine's semi-famous acting couple. Eugene Levy plays Dr. Allan Pearl, a dentist with a Johnny Carson fixation who has just discovered the show biz bug. Parker Posey is just adorable as Libby Mae, former Dairy Queen clerk getting a taste for the big time. The cast is perfect and this movie would not have been the same without them.

All in all, Waiting for Guffman is a stunning parody of community theatre, complete with Broadway-style songs about Blaine, stools, and UFO's written by Spinal Tap veterans Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer.

[Guest and company attempted to repeat the formula with Best in Show (which I found lacking), but this is such an original that it stands high above its successor.]

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