Mighty Mediocre

Wind bags a few charming laughs but mostly meanders

Just to admit this up front, my ideal concept of musical comedy involves Bryan Adams and Dave Matthews garroting each other onstage with their own damnable guitar strings. Nonetheless, even viewers with a more centrist appreciation of the genre may be disappointed by this friendly new folk-music curiosity called A Mighty Wind. God love Christopher Guest for being unrelentingly screwy, but this time the director of Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show seems peculiarly tone-deaf in conducting his chorus of yuks.

Guest loves combing the unruly locks of wigged-out Americana in search of sweetly beguiling freaks. Here, with his trademark combination of detached affection and smug condescension, he employs the device of a reunion concert to corral his loonies center stage. His cozily familiar ensemble cast engenders the same feelings you may experience at a family reunion: You're required to love these people, but you don't have to laugh at their jokes.

Delivered in the pseudodocumentary style Guest learned from Rob Reiner by way of This Is Spin¨al Tap and continues to favor, Wind introduces us to obsessive-compulsive nebbish Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban) who's desperate to honor his recently deceased folk-mogul father with a tribute show featuring his former best and brightest. Rounded up from obscurity or retirement are the Folksmen (Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, reassembled as their other pet project), the New Main Street Singers (a cheesy young "neuftet" featuring a shamefully squandered Paul Dooley as the sole original member) and Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), a heartfelt Sonny and Cher parody minus the parody.

Eugene Levy in A Mighty Wind
Eugene Levy in A Mighty Wind
Multiple locations

Haven't these people heard of the Rutles?

The acts rehearse and prepare themselves emotionally for their stint at New York's Town Hall, and iffy improvisation and erratic intercutting ensue. The filmmakers claim to have whittled down somewhere between 50 and 80 hours of raw footage, but the project still feels mostly like a drastically extended outtake reel -- which could explain the absence of any such treat at the end. It's ridiculous how much time is spent not laughing; I haven't not laughed this hard since John Cleese turned Clockwise.

Obviously there's some safety in numbers. With all this talent, even youngsters whose appreciation of folk music spans all the way back to Jewel will find piecemeal amusement -- and if not, there are plugs for Mac computers and the Powerpuff Girls to keep them watching. Seasoned fans of 1950s and '60s folk may find a bit more to enjoy, particularly because the faux archives of these musicians -- the televised performances, the silly album covers -- have been produced with the same care for period design seen in Spin¨al Tap. As a hideously bearded Shearer reminisces in one of the movie's dozen-or-so funny lines, "To do then now would be retro; to do then then was very nowtro."

Even though Guest and Levy claim writing credit, improvisation ruled the shoot. Sometimes this inspires confusion, but occasionally it brings delight. Consider Laurie and Terry Bohner (Jane Lynch and John Michael Higgins), an "up with people" Florida couple whose dedication to saccharine folk singing is matched only by their bizarre religious fervor. Somehow her "acting" background (starring in "short films for mature audiences") and his childhood abuse ("mostly musical in nature") lead them to their zealous worship of color. This concept isn't very well developed, but faith in Guest's sketchy process is temporarily revived when Higgins deadpans, "Humankind is simply materialized color operating on the 49th vibration." Another laugh! In a comedy! Fancy that!

There are also cute moments with Ed Begley Jr. as a wistful broadcast executive and Fred Willard as a manic manager. Kudos to Larry Miller and Jennifer Coolidge as oblivious yet manipulative PR reps -- the closest the movie dares come to satire. Otherwise, the fun, salty Folksmen appear way too little, and nobody else has enough screen time to steal the show. Well, except for Levy, who manages to pull off his constipated-retard caricature but doesn't manage to stop us wondering why.

As a director, Guest was at his best with his first feature, The Big Picture (1989), a delicious Valentine for film-school grads and Hollywood shufflers but certainly comprehensible even to pop-culture poseurs. That movie somehow balanced heart and whimsy, but these streams have diverged significantly since then. Guest's ambitious attempt to re-wed them in A Mighty Wind foments a woeful wave of self-cancellation: His comic invention ends up hamstrung by his virulent sentimentality and look-at-me preciousness. The songs are actually quite good -- if also hideously embarrassing -- but these comedians take their roles far too seriously, to their peril and our puzzlement.

 
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