WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Blaine, Missouri, the town plan a concert featuring the talents of its townsfolk, to be staged by Off-off-off-off Broadway refugee Corky St. Clair. News that a theatre critic will be attending sends shivers down the spines of the eclectic cast, but whether the show will happen, especially given its no-budget nature, is still very much open to question.
In marked contrast to the splendid, ridiculous bombast of This is Spinal Tap, such is the delicacy of Waiting for Guffman that you worry that it might crumble to nothing at being looked at too closely. However, whilst Christopher Guest’s film never quite hits the heights of Reiner’s mockumentary, in its subtle, sly humour Guffman has a few moments that come very close.
The story could hardly be simpler: fey actor Corky St. Clair (Guest, director and co-writer with Levy) is staging the show ‘Red, White and Blaine’ in celebration of Maine’s sesquicentennial by pulling together the town’s talent to mark the key moments in the life of the town. These moments include the settlement of the town when Blaine Fabin lied to his followers that they were in California; the visit of President McKinley when he was presented with a plush stool, leading to the town’s ‘stool boom;’ and a pre-Roswell visit by aliens which left a corn circle with eerie climatic conditions.
The cast include husband-and-wife travel agents and amateur thesps Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), bored Dairy Queen waitress Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey) and frustrated dentist Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), in addition to more reluctant figures such as narrator Clifford (Lewis Arquette) and beefy mechanic Johnny (Matt Keeslar). When the council refuse to give Corky any of the $100,000 he demands to stage the show to meet the anticipated standards of eponymous New York Critic Mort Guffman, music teacher Lloyd Miller (Bob Balaban) fills in, much to the chagrin of the cast. With much flattery Corky is eventually persuaded back on board, but will Guffman enjoy the show?
It’s not in the story, but in the lives of the characters that this film really lives; and in capturing the nuances of small-town, second-rate ambitions and limitations, Guest and his cast pull off something marvellous. Quoting them here doesn’t do them any favours, but the wannabe actors pitch everything just right: Levy’s dentist wasn’t the class clown but sat next to him and picked up a lot of tips; Sheila is given performance notes by Ron, yet she has to mouth everything to him just in case; and Balaban, in a wonderfully compact performance, is pitched constantly on the edge of frustration that his legitimate concerns are not given an ear, whilst Corky is loved despite his lack of thoroughness in rehearsals.
It is the solidity of these performances that allow Guest’s Corky to be outlandishly flamboyant, with his extravagant dancing and colourful language during his frequent flounces. Of course, the exaggerated nature of his effeminacy is made doubly effective when he has to take Johnny’s place at the last moment, his love duet with Posey one of many highlights.
Guest has made a few films where the basic structure is the same: Gathering performers together, rehearsal, performance and aftermath. In each, the aftermath is always the weakest segment, and this is particularly true of Waiting for Guffman. The film falls away badly at its conclusion, with nobody aside from Corky having anything of interest to add; if I had another complaint, it would be that the music doesn’t always sound as it should (some of the instruments sound synthesised, and a good joke where a trumpet player doubles up as a timpanist is ruined by him only hitting one drum whilst two play on the soundtrack).
By and large, however, the performances make up for this, and not only those of the theatrical players: Linda Kash is nicely square as Allan’s easily-shocked wife, and Michael Hitchcock beautifully camp as the councilman who can’t get enough of Corky, to name but two. People looking for action or in-your-face comedy will probably find Guffman rather quiet, but for anyone who has lived in smaller towns and/or has ever trod the boards at any level, there are plenty of laughs here, and robust ones at that.