Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Hiccup on the Rainbow of Comedy: "A Mighty Wind" (2003)

Christopher Guest was on a roll after the one-two laugh punch of "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best of Show." His mockumentary skills were at their peak, and everything he was churning out seemed to be universally acclaimed- and then along came another can't-miss story about a reunion of some fictional 1960's folk singing acts.

The great manager/promoter Irving Steinbloom has passed on and his son Jonathan (Bob Balaban) goes about organizing a tribute concert reuniting three of the biggest folk singing acts of the 1960's. The Folksmen- Mark (Harry Shearer), Alan (Christopher Guest), and Jerry (Michael McKean) are back together, mildly bickering about how to sing their old hits. The Main Street Singers have morphed into the New Main Street Singers, led by married couple Terry (John Michael Higgins) and Laurie (Jane Lynch), and former rebel Sissy (Parker Posey). Finally, duet (and former lovers) Mitch and Mickey are back together. Mitch (Eugene Levy) is a burned out mental case, and Mickey (Catherine O'Hara) is a subdued housewife married to a catheter salesman. Old wounds are opened and old fights rehashed as the countdown to Irving's tribute concert, which is being broadcast live on public television, begins. The unseen "documentary" crew goes behind-the-scenes with the acts, catching their nervousness after being out of the limelight for so long, as well as those involved behind the curtain of the concert, including Jonathan's equally crazed family. Many crises arise on the big night, all to the delight of New York City's Town Hall, and the film's, audience.

I am very fond of Christopher Guest's "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best of Show," but I think "A Mighty Wind" is the weaker of the three. While the folk songs, all written by the cast, and Michael McKean's wife Annette O'Toole (I didn't know they were married), sound eerily similar to those songs I hear on late night television infomercials, I get the idea Guest threw in too much, and did not want to cut all of it out. The extra characters, while often funny, overwhelm the film: the PR duo, Jonathan's fighting siblings, the New Main Street Singers' former sitcom star-manager, the event liaison at the Town Hall, the old Main Street Singers members, the public broadcasting network crew; all funny, but if he left everything in, the film would have been three hours long. On the other hand, at ninety-two minutes, you wonder what all was cut.

If "For Your Consideration" (which I have not seen...yet) was Catherine O'Hara's best chance at an Oscar nomination, then "A Mighty Wind" was Eugene Levy's best stab at a supporting actor Academy Award. His slow talking Mitch is astoundingly hilarious, from his insane solo album covers to the genuine chemistry Levy has with O'Hara. Levy steals every scene he is in, and steals from a cast that all have their hysterical moments: the Folksmen's hole-less vinyl records, the Main Street Singers' ten year-thirty album output, and even the back stage antics of the groups. Terry and Laurie's religious choice is just plain unfunny, and for once Parker Posey is wasted in a too small role.

"A Mighty Wind" was critically successful, garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, and even winning a Grammy! My only wish is that just as much effort went into getting the pacing and characterization down as went into the excellent recreations of a very campy forgotten musical genre. (* * *) out of five stars.