You know what you're getting with a Christopher Guest film. And yet, you also don't. By Zac Crain
As a filmmaker, you know you've made it when an audience will come along for the ride simply because you're in the driver's seat. Plot, characters, cast - none of it matters as much as the director and his attendant consistent vision. Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and, lately, Wes Anderson all command that kind of trust. The same goes for Christopher Guest. It's highly likely that people would come out to see his latest, For Your Consideration, even if the film's poster simply listed the title and Guest's name. They wouldn't necessarily need to know it was yet another of his patented faux documentaries, this time tracking what happens when Oscar buzz suddenly (and somewhat inexplicably) descends upon the cast of Home for Purim, a rather stilted period drama.
With For Your Consideration hitting theaters soon, it's the perfect time to take a look back and see how Guest earned his audience's faith.
The Big Picture (1989)
Guest's first feature, The Big Picture, is closest in subject matter to For Your Consideration, though it doesn't really hint at the style he would later develop. The film, starring Kevin Bacon as fresh-from-film-school director Nick Chapman, skewers the ridiculousness of Hollywood and its motley crew of blowhard studio execs, vapid wannabe actresses, and clueless agents. If you've read Down and Dirty Pictures, Peter Biskind's great book about independent film in the 1990s and its eventual seduction by the big studios, you'll recognize that Guest's take on Hollywood was scarily prescient; Bacon's Chapman could be a stand-in for Steven Soderbergh post-Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Though satirical to the point of absurdity at times, The Big Picture has a heart that Guest's subsequent films lack, thanks, in part, to a surprisingly warm performance by Guest's longtime running buddy, Michael McKean. It also features, at the other end of the spectrum, a bravura turn by the late, great J.T. Walsh (you know him, even if you don't think you do) as borderline insane studio chief Allen Habel. Unfortunately, The Big Picture was only a big deal on HBO; the number of times I saw it is in the low triple digits.
Waiting for Guffman (1996)
Apart from a throwaway TV remake of Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, this was Guest's next film, and it proved to be the watershed moment of his directing career. Waiting for Guffman set the template for just about everything he's done since, with its documentary-style setup and largely improvised performances. It's a style that more or less picks up where 1984's This Is Spinal Tap - the film Guest cowrote with McKean, Harry Shearer, and director Rob Reiner - left off, but Guest has honed it considerably. The cameras trail a group of small-town actors as they attempt to put together a musical celebrating the 150th anniversary of Blaine, Missouri, under the direction of Guest's flamboyant failed theater director, Corky St. Clair. Waiting for Guffman's genius is that Guest doesn't mock the characters' misguided ambitions so much as he lets them do it for him, giving everyone just enough rope. The talented cast - Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, and Parker Posey, among others - rewards him by rarely playing for laughs, letting the scenario and the characters do all the work.
Best in Show (2000)
Guest followed Waiting for Guffman with his first real misstep, 1998's Almost Heroes, which starred Matthew Perry and Chris Farley as explorers out to beat Lewis and Clark or some such. You could forgive him, though, since (1) he didn't write it, (2) Perry was still very much a sitcom actor, and (3) Farley was partying himself to an early grave. Guest seemed to understand he had strayed too far from his strengths, so he retrenched and came back with Best in Show, which takes everything that was good about Waiting for Guffman and applies it to the world of dog shows. Guest was, to some extent, underestimated as a filmmaker after Waiting for Guffman, even though it was a success, because some felt he did nothing more than round up a skilled group of players, who then turned his idea into a movie. No one could accuse him of that with Best in Show, though it employs the same technique and many of the same actors. Coming much closer to a real documentary than to a series of staged sketches (especially the action sequences of the climactic dog show), the film proves that Guest is, perhaps, the sharpest comedic editor around, understanding exactly what makes each scene work in terms of serving the film as a whole.
A Mighty Wind (2003)
With For Your Consideration, Guest returns to the ground he previously covered with The Big Picture. Likewise, A Mighty Wind has him digging back into the world of music, only this time, he’s picked a genre as far away from the metal sound of Spinal Tap as possible: folk music. The results are similarly spectacular, as Guest’s fake-documentary crew captures the proceedings leading up to a tribute concert honoring a recently deceased folk-music promoter. Since the cast is studded with familiar faces (Levy, O’Hara, McKean, Shearer, Posey) and, again, the approach is almost identical to Guest’s previous films, you would expect A Mighty Wind to finally show some chinks in the director’s armor. But it’s to his credit that even though he has a formula, it never feels like one, not as soon as the film starts. That is, arguably, the reason people keep coming back for Guest’s films; they’re comfortingly familiar and bracingly fresh at the same time. His films are like identically wrapped birthday presents, each holding a different treasure inside. Oh, and one other reason people keep coming back to Guest’s work: It’s always hilarious.