In the spirit of “Spinal Tap,” Christopher Guest’s film “Waiting for Guffman” is a comic pseudo-documentary about a group of talent-challenged actors seeking to step center-stage.
The principals in this case, however, are not heavy-metal rock stars but the cast of a small-town musical revue and the Very-Off-Broadway emigre who leads them.
His name is Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest), and he has transplanted himself to the quintessential small town of Blaine, Mo., after an unsuccessful tryout as a chorus-line dancer in New York. Somewhat surprisingly, he has taken the town by fire.
Literally. Corky’s musical version of the movie “Backdraft” ended up burning down the theater.
But the town forgave him. Or at least the Blaine town council has, because its members are convinced that Corky is the only one with enough ability to produce the town’s 150-year - its “sesquicentennial” - anniversary celebration.
It’s not as if there’s no history to boast of. Blaine revels in its “accidental” founding - the original Blaine was sure he’d arrived at the West Coast.
Then there was the famous UFO sighting. By combining this dubious legacy with would-be performers drawn from such venues as the town travel agency, dentist’s office and Dairy Queen, and putting them in a musical tribute titled “Red, White and Blaine,” Corky stands to make history all by himself.
Especially when he learns that a representative from a New York producing agency, the Guffman of the film’s title, is scheduled to attend the show. This, as Corky breathlessly tells his motley cast, is their chance to hit the “big time.”
The film we see is actually portrayed as a video crew’s attempt to capture Corky’s march toward posterity. And so we watch as he holds auditions and attracts everyone from “the Lunts of Blaine,” travel agents Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), to a strange man who auditions by performing a scene from “Raging Bull” (strangely enough, he is not cast).
But in addition to the Albertsons, Corky also casts Dr. Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), the wall-eyed dentist; Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey), the DQ counter girl whose audition is a hilariously gymnastic rendition of the song “Teacher’s Pet”; and Johnny Savage (Matt Keeslar), the hard-case pretty boy who has less reason to be on stage than anyone.
Even the trailer-dwelling town storyteller (Lewis Arquette) gets cast, and he turns out to be a better narrator than anyone would have expected.
Guest reduces his movie to essentials, following his cast through the auditions, rehearsals and the opening-night performance.
Along the way we see Corky’s temper tantrum over the town council’s refusal to front him the incredible sum of $100,000, the attempts by the musical director (Bob Balaban) to force Corky out when he temporarily quits and each cast member’s own quirkiness (Sheila and Ron, for example, work in an “exotic” job but have never gone anywhere themselves).
Aside from his own impeccable sense of comedy, writer-director Guest exhibits what may be his greatest strength by creating humor that is acidic without being mean-spirited. Each of the cast members is delusional to an extreme, but all boast such innocence that it’s virtually impossible not to sympathize with them.
Even when reality comes crashing down, Guest softens the disappointment by providing an epilogue that shows each of the actors coping in ways that prove just how capable they are of… well, ignoring reality if nothing else.
This is especially true for Corky, who is the target of a running joke involving his obvious homosexuality (he refers to a wife who is never seen).
Guest portrays Corky as the consummate professional, one who steps in at the very last moment to save the show. Corky’s undying strength, though, is his supreme sense of self - which, hilariously, includes the ability to find meaning in “My Dinner With Andre” action figures or satisfaction in “Remains of the Day” lunch boxes.
By pushing that kind of comic sense squarely into the footlights, Guest makes “Waiting for Guffmann” feel anything but amateurish.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Waiting for Guffman” *** Locations: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Christopher Guest, starring Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Lewis Arquette, Matt Keeslar, Paul Dooley, Bob Balaban, Paul Benedict and Larry Miller Running time: 1:24 Rating: R