A Mighty Wind

(2003) *** 1/2 Pg-13
91 min. distributer. Director: Christopher Guest. Cast: Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr, Jennifer Coolidge, Paul Dooley, Christopher Guest.

A Mighty Wind represents an intriguing development of Christopher Guest's mockumentary style. The recipe remains the same: round up the usual suspects--a friendly group of skilled improvisers and talented musicians--and work loosely from a script outline. But here the outline--developed by Guest and co-star Eugene Levy--pursues a more deeply felt poignancy. This is Spinal Tap (directed by Guest crony Rob Reiner), Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show may be funnier films, but none allows as much spirit as A Mighty Wind.

In that title, of course, lies the gleeful, blasphemous paradox of this heartfelt and craftily funny film: biblically, the Judeo-Christian God's "Holy Spirit" appeared in the form of "a mighty wind," but here, the mighty wind of "peace and freedom" duplicitously serves the singers' blithely unintentional fart and oral sex allusions in the film's rousing musical climax. For Guest, the holy spirit is a love of music and performance, bombastic and cheesy and sappy though they may be. Perhaps for the first time, Guest's mockumentary "targets" fleetingly become iconic and admirable. That Guest pulls the rug out in a stingingly funny coda only amplifies the ephemeral glory of a moment in the spotlight.

As usual, Guest and Levy appear in front of the camera, Guest as one-third of the fictious Folksmen and Levy as one-half of Mitch and Mickey, a once-romantic singing duo. The erstwhile folk singers of record--along with a preposterously reconstituted New Main Street Singers lacking all but one of the original members--reunite for a live New York concert in honor of their recently deceased concert promoter Irving Steinbloom. Michael McKean and Harry Shearer round out the Folksmen, a Bizarro-world version of the Kingston Trio, while Catherine O'Hara plays Mickey to Levy's Mitch. They might conjure up duos like Ian and Sylvia, but Levy's Mitch cannot help but recall a catalog of pop music burnouts from Brian Wilson to Ozzy Osbourne.

The parody here is insidious, squirming its way to hilarity by taking dead-eye shots at desperately unhip desk jockeys and straight-laced theatrical professionals (Bob Balaban's Jonathan Steinbloom comically duels with Michael Hitchcock's self-important theatre manager), PBS's aging demographics, the religious hypocrisy of Bible Belt chorales, and the relative popularity of folk juvenalia to music with a message.

Some of the cast--like Parker Posey, Paul Dooley, Bill Cobbs, Larry Miller--appear only fleetingly, but Jennifer Coolidge makes the most of her minutes as another hilariously thick bombshell. Ed Begley, Jr. seems a bit over-rehearsed, but still scores laughs as the Swedish PBS honcho spouting screwy Yiddish malapropisms. And a Guest mockumentary would be nothing without the fatuous energy of Fred Willard, who here plays has-been TV performer Mike LaFontaine, still peddling his old catch-phrases ("Wha'happuned?!") as a talent manager always working an angle.

After the steady buildup of the first half (roaming through the best bits of hours of riffing recorded on film), Guest takes us into "Town Hall" for the main-event concert, which has a whiff of A Hard Day's Night about it in its farcical complications. The Folksmen find themselves squeezed to the middle of a bill by the other two, barely contained acts; in one of the film's most cleverly constructed jokes, Shearer's Mark Shubb haplessly stalls for time.

Perhaps the biggest joke on the audience is that the peace and love naïveté of the creditably sprightful folk songs--all originals penned by the cast and McKean's wife Annette O'Toole--turns out to be real. As Balaban awkwardly gushes about one group, "They were the kind of infectious that was good to spread around."

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