A musical reunion of sixties folk singers is the ripe comic subject of A Mighty Wind, the latest achingly funny movie from director Christopher Guest and his merry pranksters. It’s just about as terrific as Guest’s previous two wingdings, Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, which tarred the mini-universes of community theater groups and dog shows. Guest’s method is very simple: construct a detailed plot outline in the form of a mock documentary, bring in actors to improvise their characters’ dialogue, shoot upwards of 50 hours of footage, and then streamline everything in the editing room. In comedy, short often sells better than long. But I always wish these films were lengthier; at a time when so many bad Hollywood movies are bloated way past the two-hour mark, it seems criminally negligent for Guest to trim his glories. Of course, both earlier films were eventually released in DVD formats that included reams of hilarious outtakes, and no doubt A Mighty Wind will enjoy the same benefit. But what’s wrong with gorging on more of the movie right now?
Like Robert Altman, Guest specializes in assembling a crazy quilt of characters around some unifying event and then heating up the ferment. And, like Altman, he’s cultivated a stock company of players whose work together is so intuitively sharp that it seems to redefine the boundaries of acting. If, for example, you think that the presence of Eugene Levy (who co-wrote the film with Guest) and Catherine O’Hara as the estranged, shell-shocked singing couple Mitch & Mickey signals broad humor, the surprise is that their scenes together, while deep-down funny, are also immensely touching. We seem to be watching revue-sketch artists who are at the same time tragic actors. We’re caught off guard by the ways in which comedy can sidle into sadness.
The occasion for the reunion in A Mighty Wind is a memorial tribute to folk impresario Irving Steinbloom, arranged by his pathologically neat son Jonathan (Bob Balaban). As the Folksmen, a middling group with one minor sixties hit, Michael McKean, Guest, and Harry Shearer are the image of superannuated hippiedom: With his head shaved and a thick beard outlining his jaw, Shearer looks like a fey Quaker; Guest, also bald down the middle, has a dome that’s tufted on both sides and a high, singsong quaver in his voice that works especially well for ballads about the Spanish Civil War. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the Folksmen are the New Main Street Singers—a screechingly cheery and color-coordinated spinoff of the original Main Street Singers—featuring John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, and Parker Posey. They’re like every group you’ve ever avoided while visiting a large amusement park. Of course, in the great all-American tradition, their toothpaste-commercial uplift camouflages weirdness: For starters, Lynch’s character is proud of her past as a porno queen and cultivates her own religion based on the “vibratory power of color.”
There are many other inspired players in the mix: Fred Willard is the obliviously crass personal manager of the New Main Street Singers whose bleached-yellow hair seems ionized with bad promotional schemes; Ed Begley Jr. is the public-TV honcho who sprinkles tales of his Swedish upbringing with Yiddish phrases; Larry Miller and Jennifer Coolidge are the public-relations team handling the folk-reunion event at Town Hall, and they have the straight-ahead confidence of the truly incompetent. Coolidge, who practically steals the show in her brief screen time, speaks in an accent that she has described in interviews as “a combination of Scandinavian, Czechoslovakian, and a deaf woman.” Exactly.
The folkie satire in A Mighty Wind is devastatingly detailed, not only in terms of the original songs that the filmmakers have come up with—like “Never Did No Wanderin’ ”— but even in the look (and the calligraphy) of the sixties album covers. But, in the end, it would be a mistake to characterize this movie as some kind of stinging send-up. It’s a much stranger experience than that. Guest’s affection for these people has a real poignancy. When last seen, Catherine O’Hara’s Mickey is prolonging her career by playing solo Autoharp at a medical-supplies convention, and we’re not laughing at her. We wish her only the best.
Watching Anger Management, a disposable, sporadically amusing jape starring Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler, I was reminded of just how often Nicholson has been memorably angry in the movies. Probably no other actor has had as many iconic moments of rage: The wheat-toast scene in the diner in Five Easy Pieces, the slapfest with Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, his “You can’t handle the truth” outburst in A Few Good Men, and his “Here’s Johnny!” from The Shining, as well as just about everything he did in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Rage seems to complete him as an actor. One reason About Schmidt was so overrated, I think, is because people responded to his absence of anger as some kind of proof that he was truly acting, that he wasn’t being “Jack.”
In his new film, Nicholson is playing an anger-management counselor to Sandler’s milquetoast patient, and his memorable moments are few; this is the kind of coarse comedy where a fart serves as a punch line. The contrast between the actors is supposed to represent a yin-yang of temperaments, but, especially after Punch Drunk Love, how can anybody see Sandler as a nebbish who needs to locate his inner implosiveness?
Two documentaries to note: Jacques Perrin’s Winged Migration utilizes specially designed cameras mounted on planes, gliders, helicopters, and balloons to show us birds in flight across 40 countries. Parts of this film are as blandly lulling as a mood tape, but at best it’s a literally soaring experience… . Jennifer Dworkin’s harrowingly straightforward Love and Diane (at Film Forum) follows for several years an African-American mother and daughter in New York as they make their way through addiction, welfare, HIV, therapists, prosecutorsÂ—the whole social-services maze.
A Mighty Wind
Directed by Christopher Guest; starring Eugene Levy and Michael McKean.
Directed by Peter Segal; starring Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler.