A Mighty Wind

on April 16, 2003 by Wade Major
Having already taken his shots at such uniquely American peculiarities as regional theatre and dog shows in “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show,” mock documentary king Christopher Guest now sets his sights on yet another offbeat middle-American obsession: folk music.

As amusing and frequently hilarious as it is, “A Mighty Wind” is unfortunately the lesser of the three films, an uneven effort in which the high points are scattered so intermittently between longer, less successful stretches that impatience often risks overtaking satisfaction.

As with the previous two films, it's an ensemble piece (featuring Guest's usual stock of actors) built around a climactic “big show,” preceded by much preparation and accelerating anxiety on the part of the participants. The show here is to be a public television tribute to a recently deceased folk icon named Irving Steinbloom. Organized by his son Jonathan (Bob Balaban), the show is meant to reunite two of Steinbloom's most famous acts--The Folksmen and Mitch & Mickey--as well as showcase The New Main Street Singers, a reformulated, second-generation singing troupe descended from Steinbloom's original Main Street Singers.

Each of these groups, of course, has its own eccentric history, the most turbulent belonging to Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), the onetime lovers whose tumultuous breakup so many years earlier turned Mitch into an institutionalized basket case. The Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) have an easier time picking up where they left off, pickin', strummin' and hummin' the old hits as though no time had passed at all. Even their disdain for the original Main Street Singers is still intact, though it's the New Main Street Singers (topped by John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch and Parker Posey) who now earn their scorn for selling out to the same overly commercial pop influences as their forebears.

The best in-joke in the film, of course, is the re-teaming of Guest, McKean and Shearer--the original “Spinal Tap” guys--as a folk trio playing essentially the same instruments. An early scene in which they reflect on their formative days perfectly parallels a similar scene in “This is Spinal Tap” and is every bit as funny. Levy and O'Hara, on the other hand, never quite get the Mitch & Mickey act into its groove. Part of the problem is that Levy, who has co-written all three films with Guest, is out of sorts with the character. It's understandable that Levy would want to deviate from the deadpan nebbish that has become his stock and trade, but the leap to a burned-out, spaced-out has-been never rises sufficiently above caricature to generate substantial laughs.

The gags surrounding the New Main Street singers are more hit-and-miss. Rather than attempt to familiarize the audience with all nine members of the “neuftet,” Guest focuses on just three--Higgins, Lynch and Posey--and burdens them with having to sell many of the film's more eccentric jokes. Some of the bits are priceless (Lynch's account of her previous life in adult movies is riotous) while others are just plain odd (Lynch and Higgins explaining their color-worshipping wiccan religion).

Despite its shortcomings, “A Mighty Wind” ultimately does work more often than not, sustained in large part by the music. Almost all of the selections were written or co-written by Shearer, McKean and Guest and feature the same blend of serious musicality and unabashed silliness that the trio injected into their metal tunes for “This is Spinal Tap.” gently ribbing their chosen musical form even as they pay it loving homage. Starring Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Bob Balaban, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch and Parker Posey. Directed by Christopher Guest. Written by Christopher Guest & Eugene Levy. Produced by Karen Murphy. A Warner Bros. release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for sex-related humor. Running time: 92 min

Tags: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Bob Balaban, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Christopher Guest. Written by Christopher Guest & Eugene Levy, Karen Murphy. Warner Bros.. Comedy

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