After many years in the business, Christopher Guest seems to have ultimately established a nice little niche for himself as the director of improvised, documentary-style comedies. As part of 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, he helped pioneer the “mockumentary”. Though that film remains the genre’s best entry - and one of the finest films ever made, in my opinion - Guest also stood behind two other popular examples of the format, 2000’s Best In Show and 1996’s Waiting For Guffman.
Though I’d adored Tap for many years, I must admit that I didn’t rush out to see either of Guest’s later flicks. Why? I have no idea, but I did eventually take in a theatrical showing of Show after my friend Kevin urged me to accompany him for his second viewing of the film.
Those who don’t know Kevin won’t understand what a major endorsement this was. Kevin rarely goes to movies period; he may hit three or four theatrical releases a year, but that’s the most he would do. For Kevin to attend not one but two screenings of Show meant something.
Kevin also took in Waiting For Guffman during its theatrical run, but that was one I never got around to seeing. To be certain, I was interested in it, but it just never happened; for reasons unknown/forgotten, I missed the film, and I didn’t pursue it on home video. Why, I don’t know, for the movie seemed to be something I would like.
After a long wait, Guffman finally made it to DVD, and at last I’d be able to see it. Did it live up to the years of anticipation? No, but that opinion should be viewed with a cautious attitude. I wasn’t all that wild about either Tap or BIS when I first saw them, but later viewings endeared them to me.
As such, there’s a very good chance that my feelings about Guffman will change with additional screenings. I don’t know when this will occur - new DVDs keep me awfully busy - but I’ll update this review when it happens.
Until then, I’ll just have to make do with my initial impressions. Guffman examines a sesquicentennial pageant in the small town of Blaine, Missouri. For the climax of this celebration, the burg will stage a musical theater presentation of its history. At the center of this production stands Corky St. Clair (Guest), a frustrated émigré from the world of Broadway, where he never achieved much success. Still, within the provincial world of Blaine, this minor connection makes him a major talent to the townsfolk, and he staged triumphant (in Blaine) stage versions of programs that included the movie Backdraft.
Corky recruits Lloyd Miller (Bob Balaban), the Blaine High School’s music teacher, to act as music director. The city council’s decision to hand the entire production to Corky doesn’t sit well with Lloyd; had Corky not appeared on the scene, the show would have been his to create. However, Lloyd is virtually the only divergent voice, as the rest of the town falls over themselves to defer to Corky’s “expert” judgment.
For the performers, Corky auditions locals. These include travel agents Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), veterans of past St. Clair productions. In the newcomer territory we find dentist Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), Dairy Queen hostess Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey), gruff old Clifford Wooley (Lewis Arquette), and auto mechanic Johnny Savage (Matt Keeslar). Corky has to actively convince the last two to take part in the performance. While Wooley makes sense for the role of Our Town style narrator, Corky’s interest in Johnny seems to be more than professional, though no one appears to suspect any gay tendencies in him; after all, Corky has a wife, albeit one none of the townsfolk have ever met or seen.
As the rehearsals progress, Corky receives stunning news. Due to a letter he sent to some Broadway talent, a representative of a production company named Mort Guffman will travel to Blaine to check out the show. With him comes the potential promise that the program might eventually make it to the Great White Way.
Of course, we recognize that this would never happen, as the production is painfully - but amusingly - amateurish. Nonetheless, the participants pin their hopes and dreams on this prospect, and the film displays the ways in which they react to the results.
All three of the “mockumentaries” on which Guest has worked took on fairly easy targets. It doesn’t require much to spoof the worlds of heavy metal rock, dog shows, or small town theater productions; all three inherently parody themselves to a certain degree. One reason why the other two films were so successful stemmed from the feeling that they were affectionate looks at the material; I never thought that Tap or BIS felt mean-spirited or condescending.
As for Guffman, I’m not so sure. While it clearly wasn’t a cruel depiction of its participants, they felt less well-rounded and endearing than I expected. Corky himself was especially hard to embrace, as he seemed like a neurotic, self-absorbed megalomaniac for the most part. Guest offered much more warm and gentle performances as Tap’s Nigel Tufnel BIS’s Harlan Pepper, but those sides rarely appeared as Corky. He’s an amusing role, but Guest made him a bit too catty, and the choice to play him as gay pushed matters a little further in the negative way. Yes, this broad portrayal made sense for this sort of spoof, but it came across as a little too harsh at times.
Of course, not all of the characters in BIS were likable either, so that’s not a tremendous flaw, but I thought some of the rougher edges seen in the roles made the film a bit less accessible. As for the other participants, they seemed to be more endearing - with the exception of Ron Albertson - but I did feel that the parts were less distinct than those in Best In Show. In that film, the participants stood out fairly nicely, which the folks in Guffman lacked the same dimensionality. That was odd, since BIS had more main characters than did Guffman. Nonetheless, the former offered better-developed personae
I also felt that Guffman was a less focused project than BIS. Both worked toward a climactic ending, but Guffman wasn’t as centered along the way. For example, while the discussions of UFO visits to Blaine were funny, they seemed to be out of place and unconnected from the film as a whole. They paid off somewhat since there was an alien-related production number during “Red, White and Blaine”, but I still thought the whole concept was superfluous and disjointed.
BIS featured many of the same cast and crew, and I think that’s part of the reason it worked better. Granted, many of these folks have known each other and worked together for years, but Guffman was the first time this specific group did a full feature film in such a style. As such, I’d expect that the comfort level was higher during BIS, which made it flow more effortlessly and smoothly. In some ways, Guffman felt like a dry run for the more coherent and funny BIS.
However, I don’t want all of my comments to make it sound as though I didn’t like Guffman. In actuality, I thought it was an entertaining and clever piece. All of the performers were solid, and the material was much wittier and better developed than what we see in most movies today. For comedy fans, I won’t hesitate for a second to recommend Guffman. I enjoyed the film and I’ll be happy to watch it again.
My only reservations occurred because I didn’t think it lived up to the heights of Spinal Tap or Best In Show. Nonetheless, it’s still a fine piece of work that should work well through repeated screenings. Don’t be surprised if you re-visit this review at some point and find I’ve altered my opinions.
Two random comments: 1) Take note of the songwriters who composed Guffman’s tunes; they also were responsible for the music in another noted mockumentary; 2) Guffman was rated “R”, though it didn’t seem to offer enough potentially-objectionable material to warrant that mark. The culprit appeared to be an audition piece seen in the film; one of the aspiring thespians used a profanity-laced monologue from Raging Bull. Too many “F”-words for the MPAA, I guess, so Guffman got an undeserved “R”.
Waiting For Guffman appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. If you saw Best In Show, you’ll feel very familiar with the picture of Guffman. Some differences existed between the two, but as a whole, I had a serious case of déjà vu.
As a low-budget film, Guffman had some flaws inherent to the original product, and while these meant that the movie didn’t look terrific, I thought the DVD replicated the material well. Sharpness usually seemed to be fairly distinct and well-defined. Some wider shots looked slightly soft at times, but they usually stayed reasonably crisp. Some light edge enhancement seemed present at times. Moiré effects and jagged edges made no appearances, but print flaws caused a few concerns. Some instances of white speckles and black grit cropped up, and grain could become fairly substantial at times. The latter element seemed less prevalent than during Best In Show, but it remained a frequent nuisance.
Colors were fairly accurate, though they seemed to be a little murky at times. The film stock used didn’t resolve the hues terribly well, so while they generally appeared acceptably vivid and bright, they lacked tremendous tightness. Black levels were fairly deep and rich, and shadow detail seemed good. Ultimately, most of the flaws found in Waiting For Guffman resulted from the budget and the film stock, and I thought the DVD provided a reasonably positive presentation of the original material.
The Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of Waiting For Guffman offered similarly limited charms. During the majority of the film, the soundfield truly appeared to be monaural. Until the climactic stage presentation in the third act, I noticed exactly one scene that showed usage of the side channels: after Corky quit the show and the cast members went to his place, some modest environmental ambience appeared.
Otherwise, the mix seemed to be totally anchored to the center speaker until we got to the performance of “Red, White and Blaine”. At that time, things opened up quite nicely, mainly due to musical elements. The track featured some fairly positive atmosphere as heard while audience members entered, but the showtunes became the most active aspects of the mix. The production numbers displayed nice stereo imaging and they also received decent bolstering from the surrounds. While the overall soundfield seemed to be exceedingly modest, these parts of it kept it from being a totally bland affair.
Audio quality was good but generally unexceptional, especially prior to “Red, White and Blaine”. Dialogue clearly dominated the mix, and speech sounded acceptably distinct and natural. I thought the lines could be a little stiff at times, but they always were easily intelligible and they lacked any edginess. Effects were an exceptionally minor part of the track. What little I heard sounded reasonably accurate and realistic.
Until the movie’s climax, I felt that the track showed somewhat restricted dynamics. Granted, this could be difficult to discern since we heard little other than speech. As was the case for Best In Show, Guffman featured no actual score. All of the music that appeared resulted from natural situations. Since the movie climaxed with a musical performance, most of the tunes emanated from it. During rehearsals, the songs sounded a bit flat and constricted, but they broadened nicely during the actual presentation at the end. Dynamics appeared to be positive, as I witnessed reasonably crisp highs and fairly warm bass response. Most of Waiting For Guffman provided an extremely bland - though appropriate - auditory experience, but the movie’s finale helped boost it to a “B-“ for sound.
Not only did Guffman look and sound almost identical to Best In Show, but also it offered the same kind of extras. First we found a running audio commentary from director/writer/actor Christopher Guest and writer/actor Eugene Levy. Both were recorded together for this screen-specific piece. The Best In Show track was quite spotty, and unfortunately, this one didn’t improve upon that model.
Quite a few empty spots appeared during the commentary, and when Guest or Levy did speak, they often didn’t have much of interest to say. They mainly commented on bits left out of the completed movie - including an alternate ending that doesn’t appear in the “Deleted Scenes” area - and they also discussed some challenges inherent within the largely-improvised format. I’m a big fan of both, so I enjoyed the opportunity to hear a little from them, but as a whole, this was a pretty bland program.
One annoyance: unlike the vast majority of audio commentaries, during Guffman we didn’t hear the film’s sound in the background. This made the piece seem even more sterile and drab, and it meant that we didn’t get to listen to the material about which Levy and Guest remarked. This appeared especially odd at times, such as during the end credits when they discuss music that we couldn’t hear.
In addition, we got a slew of Additional Scenes. The DVD included 14 of these in all, and they ran between 30 seconds and six minutes, 20 seconds for a total of 33 minutes and 50 seconds of footage. Much of the material was excised simply for time; there’s a lot of fun stuff to see here, but the addition of too much of it would have slowed down the film unnecessarily. In any case, it was nice to be able to check out some of the gems that didn’t make the cut.
Some of the shots provided alternate versions of scenes that did appear in the finished film. For example, we saw another audition piece performed by Libby, and there were a couple of different “epilogue” sequences for some of the characters. The latter were darker than the ones that made the movie; although they have their merits, the slightly happier conclusion was more satisfying.
All of these “Additional Scenes” can be viewed with or without commentary from Guest and Levy. Surprisingly, they seemed to be a bit more animated here than during the film itself. They provided some details about the unused clips, and they also went into some notes about the production as a whole. A few empty spots still materialized, but Levy and Guest sounded as though they were more involved in this track. If the full commentary showed this level of participation, it would have been more compelling.
Lastly, we got some brief text production notes in the Behind the Scenes area along with the film’s Theatrical Trailer. Interestingly, the latter included a fair amount of material that didn’t make the final film. The DVD’s case claimed the “Cast and Crew” section would feature “profiles”, but all we found was one screen that listed some of the movie’s talent; no biographies or filmographies appeared for any of them.
After my first viewing of Waiting For Guffman, I must admit I didn’t like the movie as much as I anticipated I would. However, I will probably warm up to it more during subsequent screenings, and I still thought the film was quite entertaining and amusing. The DVD accurately replicated the original material; that meant I saw a fair number of problems related to the picture and I heard rather bland sound, but both departments seemed to be perfectly adequate. The disc also packed in some decent extras that added definite value to the set. With a very reasonable list price of only $19.98, Waiting For Guffman is a steal, and it would make a cheap and positive addition to your DVD library.