Waiting For Guffman

on January 31, 1997 by Christine James
   Its title alluding to the Samuel Beckett play "Waiting for Godot," in which the protagonists engage in absurdist acts and dialogue while waiting for the elusive titular character who will purportedly be their salvation, "Waiting for Guffman" has a vaguely similar construct, in which a band of amateur thespians engage in absurd acting and dialogue (not to mention preposterous musical numbers and dance routines) in anticipation of the arrival of a critic named Guffman, who has the power to bring their play to Broadway.
   Christopher Guest stars as the effeminate, hyper-sensitive, eccentrically garbed Corky, who grew tired of being perennially off-off-off-off-off-Broadway in New York and moved to the small midwestern town of Blaine, Mo. There, having intended to start a new, blue-collar way of life, he found he couldn't squelch his creative drive. He gained fame and respect in Blaine after putting on a staged version of the movie "Backdraft" (even though he set the theatre on fire when he tried to create a "sense-memory effect" by burning newspapers in the vents). Now, his challenge is to translate the history of Blaine into a musical production, to be performed at the city's sesquicentennial celebration. An open audition of Blaine's citizenry results in casting that includes the town dentist (Eugene Levy); a washed-up husband-and-wife acting duo (Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara) and a Dairy Queen employee (Parker Posey). Their enthusiasm is, unfortunately, conversely proportional to their talent, though Corky, who is equally talent-impaired, thinks they're all fantastic.
   The proceedings are filmed documentary-style, a la "Spinal Tap," the brilliant 1985 rockumentary spoof, which Guest also starred in and co-wrote. (In fact, fellow Tappers Michael McKean and Harry Shearer share songwriting credits with Guest in "Guffman"). Although not nearly as astute, incisive and hilarious a parody as "Spinal Tap," "Guffman" has many laugh-out-loud moments and characterizations. And the completed play, though cheesy, is (surprisingly) not painfully cheesy; it is in fact enjoyably cheesy. Levy of "SCTV" fame as the dentist-turned-(unlikely) leading man who delusionally considers himself a great humorist is particularly funny in his oblivious portrayal. (At one point, he tells the documentarian, deadpan, "Everyone says, `Well, you must have been the class clown!' No, I was not, but I sat next to the class clown, and I studied him.") Several great lines, spirited performances and amusing asides make this good-humored satirization of small-town naivete enjoyable, if not as ingenious as its heavy-metal predecessor. Starring Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara and Parker Posey. Directed by Christopher Guest. Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. Produced by Karen Murphy. A Sony Classics release. Comedy. Rated R for brief strong language. Running time: 82 min. Screened at the Toronto fest
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