A Mighty Whiff

The good news is that Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) has co-written and directed a sharp, stingingly honest satire about the movie business—about the rampant insecurity and egoism, the aversion to originality and risk, the perverse pleasure taken in others' misfortunes, and the speed with which you can become the very person you said you never would. The bad news is that the movie in question isn't Guest's latest, For Your Consideration, but rather his 1989 debut feature, The Big Picture, which told the story of a wide-eyed film-school grad named Nick Chapman (Kevin Bacon) who comes to Tinseltown as the flavor of the month and watches—first in horror and later willingly—as his Bergmanesque chamber drama is transformed into a sun-and-surf beachside romp. Co-written by Guest with Michael Varhol and Michael McKean, that movie (coming three years before The Player) cut so close to the Hollywood bone that then-Columbia Pictures president Dawn Steel tried to coerce Guest into abandoning the project and, upon its completion, promptly buried it.

For Your Consideration, by contrast, doesn't risk ruffling any feathers, and that's exactly what's wrong with it: it's less a satirical bite at the hand that feeds Guest than it is a toothless nibble, and it isn't particularly funny. Working in his customarily loose, semi-improvisational style (the actors were reportedly given a 27-page treatment co-authored by Guest and Eugene Levy), Guest here wants to do for Hollywood's annual awards season what Best in Show did for the kennel-club set. He wants to show us how the already self-perpetuating absurdity of people ensconced in the industry bubble ratchets up to epic proportions when little gold statuettes are on the line. And I don't know many who would deny that Guest has hit upon a rich subject, at a time when seemingly every movie released between Labor Day and Christmas arrives wreathed in some kind of Oscar “buzz” and when Harvey Weinstein continues to take Academy Award campaigning/whoring to new levels of shamelessness. (Case in point: the newspaper ads for Weinstein's latest would-be thoroughbred, the Emilio Estevez–directed Bobby, which tout the film's win of an ensemble-acting award at the recent Hollywood Film Festival—a festival at which Bobby did not even screen.)

But that Hollywood bears scant resemblance to the one on display in For Your Consideration, which sets its sights on an independent movie that becomes the subject of unexpected hype when its has-been leading actress (Catherine O'Hara) is mentioned as an Oscar contender by an Ain't It Cool News-type website. The movie is called Home for Purim, and it follows an estranged family as they reunite on that most obscure of Jewish holidays while their terminally ill matriarch (O'Hara) dies slowly and melodramatically in the background. Never mind that even Hollywood, with its bottomless tolerance for cheap sentimentality, effectively stopped making such bold-faced tearjerkers once they became the domain of the Lifetime cable network: Guest seems to expect that we'll find Purim a real knee-slapper because the family is named Pisher, their dialogue is peppered with “kvelling”s and “mitzvah”s and because the movie's schlubby director (played by Guest himself) is forever asking for more close-ups of the kugel. Because, well, Jewish people and Yiddish words are just automatically funny, right?

When they're not giving CPR to borscht-belt shtick that was already on life support back when Mel Brooks was plying it, Guest and Levy lob softballs at controlling studio execs, overeager publicists and clueless celebrity journalists and offer up the sort of “insights” about the vanity of actors, the marginalization of writers and the pointlessness of producers that will seem so five-minutes-ago to anyone who's ever seen an episode of Extras or Entourage. If Guest had any beitzim, instead of a tradition-of-quality weepy like Home for Purim he'd have made For Your Consideration's Oscar wannabe the kind of offensively bad movie that actually does get nominated for awards these days—a self-important liberal message picture, or one of those American Beauty-style postmodernist slag heaps that purport to tell us something “revealing” about middle-class life. And instead of the Oscars—the last industry award that actually means something (in terms of box office and career advancement)—the derby at hand would be one of those umpteen other awards shows that seem to crawl out of the woodwork every year and which the studios shill for with nearly equal vigor. The Hollywood Film Festival awards, let's say.

By now, the members of Guest's seasoned stock company (including Levy, O'Hara, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Parker Posey and Harry Shearer) are so warmly embraced by the audience that all they have to do is show up to engender a chuckle and a smile. But in movies like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, we did more than just chuckle and smile—we bought into the characters as real people, no matter how ridiculous they seemed, whereas here, only O'Hara comes close to making an emotional connection, until Guest turns her into an over-the-top Botox-and-silicone caricature near the end. This is the first of Guest's movies that has felt calculated to me, like it was made not because he had a great idea for a new picture but because he's become a brand name now and, three years on from A Mighty Wind, the time was nigh for a new product line. I'm not saying that Guest has sold out exactly. But with For Your Consideration, I fear he's become Nick Chapman.


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