A Mighty Wind

mitch-and-mickey-106Christopher Guest’s great comic theme is the self-delusion inherent in entertainment: it’s always seen as hapless competition, whether among film students (The Big Picture), repertory players (Waiting for Guffman), dog owners (Best in Show), or one’s own past glory (This Is Spinal Tap). Guest’s new mockumentary, A Mighty Wind, is, like Spinal Tap, about aging musicians revisiting their golden old days. The subject here is folk singers, though, not pampered metal-rock dinosaurs, so A Mighty Wind is the gentlest satire Guest has yet created. As Guest gets older, I think, his instinct is to honor the entertainers who are still in there pitching, rather than to tear them down.

Once again fashioning a loose framework with co-star Eugene Levy (within which the cast is free to improvise), Guest proposes that a trailblazing folk-music manager has died, and that his son (Bob Balaban) wants to organize a reunion concert of all the old ’60s acts the old man represented. There’s the New Main Street Singers, who seem to have only one original member left (a sour-faced Paul Dooley); the Folksmen, a one-hit wonder reuniting the Spinal Tap group of Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer; and Mitch and Mickey (Levy and Catherine O’Hara), who once crooned sweetly to each other to the oohs and ahs of America, but haven’t spoken since their acrimonious split decades ago.

As before, Guest lets the characters talk at length, obliviously revealing their own quirks and neuroses. The New Main Street Singers, for instance, seem to be a haven for society’s drop-outs, fleeing ugly reality and snuggling into the safety and pieties of the group dynamic. One couple, the waggishly named Bohners (John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch), talk like chipper suburban drones, but she has a past as a “performer” in movies “for mature audiences,” and they both solemnly worship the “dimension of color.” Parker Posey, with bulletproof smile, appears as a younger group member who took solace in the Main Street Singers after living on the streets for a while. Folk music here is seen as a calming illusion, an almost religious structure.

We watch the various groups as showtime approaches. The Folksmen argue over whether to take their old Dickies out of mothballs; Harry Shearer has the movie’s home-run line when he tries to distinguish between hip and retro. The Main Street Singers, shiny and happy to a fault, nevertheless show some integrity when deflecting the goofball ideas of Fred Willard in the perfect Fred Willard role as their manager. The emotional core of A Mighty Wind is the tentative reunion of Mitch and Mickey, and Guest finds something real and spiky in their anti-rapport. O’Hara gives a rather frightened performance as a woman looking back on her past and seeing nothing but ghosts, while Levy, the ghost who walks, goes so far into Mitch’s near-autistic misery that he creates a void that the movie is drawn into. It throws the film’s tender comedy off a little, but Guest and especially Levy give us a man whose demons won’t be resolved in a lifetime, never mind in 92 minutes of screen time. The movie bravely lets Mitch be screwed-up and unreachable, and the comedy deepens.

Everything leads up to the live televised reunion concert, and Guest correctly concludes that we don’t want to see everything fall apart — we don’t want any Stonehenge embarrassments, we want these people to come back and bask in the glow again for an evening. Suspense gathers alongside the comedy — will Mitch get it together enough to perform again with Mickey? — and there are some good laughs involving an unauthorized cover version and Harry Shearer’s stone-faced lecture on the anguish of the Civil War. A Mighty Wind is not as biting as some Guest fans might want it to be, but who wants to see these people bitten? They’re harmless enough, and their music — composed by the actors, some of it genuinely good — brings them together, like a bridge between personalities or between eras.

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