WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: The cast of little-heralded film Home For Purim are rocked by the news that at least one of their number has been mentioned in connection with Oscar nominations. Despite downplaying the buzz, the rumours have an ever-increasing effect on the actors’ behaviour and mental state as the time comes for names to be named.
If you have read the WFTB reviews of This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman or Best in Show (A Mighty Wind has gone AWOL for the time being), you won’t be surprised when I say I’m a big fan of Christopher Guest and am well aware of the familiar rhythms of his and Eugene Levy’s work, and the quirks of his trusted and much-used cast. For For Your Consideration the team have taken a different tack, forsaking documentary-style cinema verité and interviews with the protagonists for a more conventional exploration of the making of Home for Purim, the film-within-the-film.
The structure of For Your Consideration threatens to be complicated to explain, but Guest – as director of Purim, Jay Berman, and as director of the film proper – does a good job of delineating his characters. Star of the film is Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara), an actress whose peak has come and gone without ever attracting the big time; in Home for Purim, she is the dying mother in the Pischer family, gathering together for a Jewish festival; her husband is played by Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer), a frustrated veteran not getting the attention he feels he deserves from agent Morty (Eugene Levy).
Their children are both doing their bit in the war effort, but whereas Sam, played by actor Brian Chubb (Christopher Moynihan) is a model son, daughter Rachel (Callie Webb (Parker Posey)) is a disruptive influence, bringing home a girlfriend to the feast. Despite this scandal, the family’s love is heart-warming enough for a Hollywood insider to see Oscar potential in the performances, initially for Marilyn but later for Victor and even Callie.
Naturally, the actors do their level best to conceal their delight; around them, however, the whirlwind threatens to spiral out of control, interest in Purim whipped up by – amongst others – eccentric publicist Corey Taft (John Michael Higgins), diaper heiress and dippy producer Whitney Taylor Brown (Jennifer Coolidge), Hollywood TV reporters Chuck and Cindy (Fred Willard and Jane Lynch) and a moneyman from the studios played by Ricky Gervais, who sensitively requests/demands the film be re-imagined as Home For Thanksgiving.
If this seems like a lot of people, it is, without even mentioning Bob Balaban and Michael McKean, the writers of Home for Purim who become ever more disgruntled with the way things are going. A total of thirteen people are featured on the DVD cover and this gives an effective picture of the film’s problems: with so many characters, very few actually get a chance to shine, with Guest, McKean and Lynch in particular reduced to very minor parts.
Of those who do grab the spotlight, Higgins’ publicist feels more like a caricature than a fully-rounded character, whilst Willard’s customary ignorance makes you wonder how Chuck ever got a job in television. Shearer and Posey are both very good, but the film really belongs to O’Hara: a gracefully fading diva at the film’s beginning, she gets caught up with the ‘buzz’ and involves herself in a desperate attempt to roll back the years as she courts publicity for the film and herself. Marilyn is a fascinating, funny and ultimately tragic exercise in the willingness of actors to have their vanity stroked, and even though she should know better she deserves her fleeting moment in the sun.
Guest’s films have traditionally been structured in terms of rehearsal and performance. In For Your Consideration, the first act deals with the production of Purim/Thanksgiving, the second the days leading up to the climactic moment of the film, the Oscar nominations. But the first act is so long, and the second so short and anti-climactic (I won’t give away why), that the film struggles to achieve any sense of cohesion and balance. This wouldn’t be a problem if the jokes were up to the usual Guest ensemble standard, but something about the ‘traditional’ shooting of the film appears to restrict them (the cast talking to reporters isn’t a particularly elegant device). There are decent jokes, of course, such as McKean’s thoughts on why you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water (“You’d have a wet, critically injured, baby”); for one reason or another, however, the illusion of spontaneity is nowhere near as strong as in other films. Also, I don’t know if it’s merely the presence of Gervais in the film, but the relationship between Victor and Morty is very reminiscent of the actor/agent partnership in Extras.
As a final thought, perhaps it’s not the style of For Your Consideration that rankles as much as the subject matter. In Waiting For Guffman and his other films, Guest presents us with a host of small-town eccentrics, just a little larger than life, who he ribs very gently; here, the mocking is less than affectionate and the audience struggles to find someone to empathise with, since Marilyn, Victor and the crazies around them do not seem to be drawn from real life at all.
As Robert Altman has already shown in The Player, it is much easier to satirise Hollywood by presenting its absurdities with a straight face, or even a scowling one: it helps vastly, too, if the Hollywood you present is one with plenty of genuine star quality (lovely though she may be, Claire Forlani doesn’t quite cut it). For Your Consideration is perfectly good fun, and all praise to Guest for shaking up his formula; but if he wanted to do things differently, his focus probably should have been trained in another direction than on his own profession.