By Admin | May 12, 2003

The last thing the world needs is a kinder gentler Christopher Guest. Unfortunately, the filmmaker, who’s carved a unique niche parodying the pants off dog fanatics in “Best in Show” and little theater enthusiasts in “Waiting for Guffman,” appears to have taken the advice of critics who’ve urged him to take it easier on the subjects of his satire. The result is a picture with moments of singular lunacy but overall regrettably little bite.
Cowritten with Eugene Levy, “A Mighty Wind” takes as its target a very specific subgroup of 60s folk singer. Before angry young men like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs brought political consciousness and a dark poetry to the music, the form was dominated by relatively chirpy acts like Ian and Sylvia, the New Christy Minstrels and the Kingston Trio. The film follows three such obsolete ensembles as they prepare for a reunion concert.
The premise is that a legendary folk impresario has died and his son, played on autopilot by Bob Balaban, has decided it would be nice if some of the acts his father managed tuned up their banjos and autoharps and played a concert in tribute to him. Shot in Guest’s now familiar mockumentary style, the movie divides its time between interviews with the musicians and the big night itself.
Problem number one: only two of the three acts are at all interesting. Of the two, Mitch & Mickey is a duo and only one of its members is a remotely compelling creation. Levy and Catherine O’Hara play off the Ian and Sylvia model, all turtlenecks and treacle. The central gag here involves the fact that the two once shared a Sonny and Cher-level passion but their career came to a crushing halt when O’Hara realized she, in fact, despised her partner.
We’re informed that Levy’s character never really recovered from the highly public spurning, that something in him snapped. On one hand, he plays Mitch with a zombie twitchiness that’s initially amusing. On the other, it’s a characterization which appropriates qualities associated with drug burnouts for comic effect-Ozzy Osbourne’s the picture of pep and mental health next to this guy-but we’re never given any credible explanation for his shattered psyche. It’s as though Guest had a handful of hard rocker clichés left over from Spinal Tap and didn’t want them to go to waste. In parodying a prepsychedelic musician but playing his if-you-can-remember-the-60s, you-weren’t-there brain damage for laughs, he seems to want to have his coke and eat it too.
The New Main Street Singers aren’t a terribly inspired invention, just nine performers (most of whom are not original members, fittingly) in cardigans and bright colors playing air headed oldies so saccharine they make Up With People sound like Nine Inch Nails.
That leaves the Folksmen, which features the guys who played Spinal Tap-Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer-transmogrified into a middle aged trio of balladeers about which the funniest thing one can reasonably say isHey, it’s the guys who played Spinal Tap.
The lion’s share of the film’s improvisational “interview” time is devoted to recollections by the Folksmen. Some of these are amusing, others merely silly. I’m thinking of the account offered early on as to how their record label was so small time it once released one of their LPs minus the little hole in the middle.
Problem number two: the big show. Am I the only one who expected more than a straight forward performance of parody tunes which, to be kind, were extremely light on parody? Spinal Tap’s were so dead on and cleverly written the album’s sold millions and the songs are still being performed by the group in concert. The music in “A Mighty Wind” is as fluffy and forgettable as the stuff it means to make fun of.
Overall, the picture is unsatisfyingly thin, nearly weightless. Talented cast members- McKean in particular-frequently look as though they’re waiting for someone to give them something funny to say or do. Conventions and clichés of the musical style are acknowledged but almost never skewered. Where’s the fun in that? Guest handles the whole affair with kid gloves as though afraid of alienating his aging core audience and the result is a culminating concert that’s such a festival of pulled punches it’s barely distinguishable from the sort you might tune into on PBS and fall asleep to any night of the week.
Details like period fashion and album covers are handled flawlessly. It’s the big stuff that falls short of the standard set by this troupe. “A Mighty Wind” is good for an occasional laugh but you’re not likely to be blown away.

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