Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 17, 2003
A Mighty Wind\r\nStarring Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest. Directed by Christopher Guest. Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. Rated PG-13.
That’s All Folk

The laughter, my friend, is blowin’ in A Mighty Wind.


Christopher Guest is a national treasure. He’s in the first rank of America’s comic filmmakers, and besides John Lasseter and his people at Pixar Animation, he’s the only one whose place there isn’t up for debate. (I’d put Spike Jonze, Kevin Smith, and the Coen brothers alongside him, but many people would disagree.) The “mockumentary” approach of Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and This Is Spinal Tap is distinctive, but his gently mocking tone, his indulgence toward his characters’ foibles, and his splendid use of his regular company of actors really set him apart. A Mighty Wind isn’t up to the level of his previous films, but that only indicates how high he has set the bar for himself.

Like his other movies, A Mighty Wind is about the inherent ridiculousness of people who are utterly serious. It takes place around a concert organized to honor the memory of a recently deceased folk music producer. Among the groups paying tribute are The Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer), who come across as three nerdy college professors; The New Main Street Singers, a well-scrubbed, relentlessly perky group of nine; and Mitch & Mickey (a permanently freaked-out Eugene Levy and a perfectly middle-aged boho Catherine O’Hara), who once captured everyone’s hearts with their love songs, but who are only now reuniting professionally after a less-than-amicable divorce.

As usual, Guest is a fantastic mimic both as an actor (I love the way he replicates Peter Yarrow’s habit of squinting and leaning in when singing into a microphone) and as a director (check how he depicts the low-prestige venues that these acts play in, or how these otherwise warm-and-friendly musicians resent the New Main Street Singers’ aggressive commercialism). The sound of these groups is particularly well evoked in Mitch & Mickey’s gossamer textures, The Folksmen’s rough-hewn ensemble work, and The New Main Street Singers’ gleaming harmonies. The folk songs are original compositions written mostly by the cast members, and they’re immensely pleasurable, occasionally beautiful (Mitch & Mickey’s “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow”). More often, they contain embedded jokes — I suspect the movie’s soundtrack c.d. is even funnier than the film itself.

The laughs here don’t come quite as consistently as they do in Guest’s other films, but there are still a number of gags and lines worthy of him. (“This candle represents divinity. It represents the vitality and the fragility of life. It also represents a penis.”) Interestingly, the funniest bits emanate from the nonmusical characters — Bob Balaban as the event’s control-freak organizer who clashes with Michael Hitchcock’s uptight hall manager; Ed Begley Jr. dropping a string of Yiddishisms as a tv network executive; Jennifer Coolidge as a brassy, German-accented publicist who doesn’t know how to hum; and Fred Willard reusing his overbearing idiot act to undiminished returns as a talent agent.

The movie’s main shortcoming, and the reason why it falls a notch below Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman, is that there’s never anything at stake. These characters are long past the days when they had any kind of fame, but we never sense that the concert is either a new beginning or a final hurrah for any of them. The only real suspense is whether Mitch and Mickey will kiss at the climax of their signature song. This may reduce A Mighty Wind to the level of a mere diversion, but it remains an awfully good one.

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