Mascots (2016)

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I have said it before, I will say it again – Christopher Guest is a visionary. I adore his films, and I could quite possibly be his most ardent devotee. I absolutely love him. I think he had the single-best trio of films in comedy history – Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. He also had a major part in creating the iconic This is Spinal Tap, and even For Your Consideration is not a terrible film. However, For Your Consideration seemed to be the end for Guest’s filmmaking career – and other than the sweet but short-lived Family Tree, it seemed like Guest wasn’t going to find himself in the director’s chair again. However, to my incredible joy and surprise, he announced Mascots, another mockumentary. I have been waiting for that film to come out since it was announced – finally, my beloved Christopher Guest was finally returning to the world of filmmaking. I will just offer the verdict immediately – it is not Guest’s best film. It doesn’t live up to his earlier work, and it is only slightly better than For Your Consideration. But I still liked it quite a bit for what it was.

Mascots sees Guest try out his well-known formula – a group of people with a strange hobby or career come together in their shared passion. In Waiting for Guffman, it was amateur theater performers. In Best in Show, it was people who entered their dogs into pageants. In A Mighty Wind, it was folk musicians. In Mascots, it is obviously mascots. The problem here is that the previous films were about strange people with hobbies that were different, but not entirely bizarre, and the comedy came from the fact that they were eccentric people with banal hobbies. Mascots, on the other hand, is centered on the fact that these people have the most bizarre hobby, and that in itself is the core of the film – which is a far-cry from what we’ve seen Guest do in the past. For the first time, these characters aren’t that interesting, and they don’t really have any peculiarities or quirks that make them lovable – they are simply weird people that dress up in costumes and dance around. There isn’t anything memorable in these performances, which is a tragedy, because the exact reason why I loved Guest’s previous films are because of the incredible performances that remain with you for a long time afterwards. Mascots quite simply does not have performances that are close to being as wonderful as previous ones – and when you consider a vast majority of the cast of Mascots is composed of previous collaborators, there must be a problem elsewhere, because I seriously doubt it is the fault of the performers that their characters are not interesting.

To me, there needs to be a hook in every film that gives it a timeless nature that will allow it to be rewatched. Mascots is built on the fact that we want to know which of these mascots win – and when we do find out, we are pleasantly surprised and satisfied, but we don’t feel the need to watch it again. I frequently rewatch Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, and even though I know exactly what happens, the films are absolutely timeless and have a strange quality that makes them so endearing. It goes without saying that Guest’s previous films are not just great – they are cinematic masterpieces, and the fact that his great return is such a disappointment is not a good thing at all, and makes me see Mascots as a bit of a failure, but not enough for me to lose hope in Christopher Guest.

I want to pinpoint the problem – and I believe it can be found in the absence of one man – Eugene Levy. Levy is so often seen as only being the dad from American Pie, but when you consider his illustrious comedy career, it becomes clear that he is far more in terms of being a comedic genius – and believe it or not, I think he is as much of a genius as Guest. Consider this simple fact – he co-wrote Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration – all of them (even For Your Consideration, which had other bigger problems other than the script) were unique and hilariously funny. Of course, Levy also played major parts in all of them. Of course, he didn’t contribute to Mascots at all, which leads me to believe that the fault lies in another person – Jim Piddock, who Guest enlisted to assist him in the writing of this film. I have nothing against Piddock – he’s a valuable member of the Guest ensemble. I just have absolutely zero faith in him as a writer, and it is clear that Guest may have depended far too much on Piddock, because there is very little in this film (or Family Tree, which Piddock also wrote) that lives up to the spark that was in previous Guest films. I understand that Levy has other commitments – but I truly feel that Christopher Guest is only able to do his best work with Levy, and I think that Guest should either work with Levy again, or enlist someone a bit more in-tune with the nature of Guest’s previous films. I just think Jim Piddock is a poor replacement for Levy.

Of course, Levy isn’t the only person missing in Mascots – and while Guest does manage to get a large chunk of his original ensemble together, it is at the expense of some of the more valuable members of previous films – namely Levy, Catherine O’Hara and Michael McKean, all of which are the core of the ensemble. Harry Shearer was also missed, but he was somewhat involved, serving as an off-screen announcer throughout the film. But that’s not to disregard some of the returning cast – even if they do rely too much on past tricks – Bob Balaban is still a wealthy milquetoast, Fred Willard is still a painfully ignorant lothario, Jennifer Coolidge is still a gold-digging idiot and Ed Begley Jr. is still a quietly furious Scandinavian. They serve their purpose, and while they may not do anything revolutionary, they still made me laugh. The new additions to the cast were very hit-and-miss – Chris O’Dowd and Tom Bennett return after starring in Family Tree, with O’Dowd (who I normally adore) seeming to be either legitimately drunk throughout the film, or only putting in a fraction of the effort, and Bennett giving perhaps the best performance in the film. Zach Woods continues his meteoric rise to comedic fame, and he is perhaps the new performer who fits the most perfectly into the Guest ensemble. I am not quite sure what Susan Yeagley was doing in Mascots, but she seemed to be in the wrong film, and her big scene (her dance performance) was so strange, and was almost completely unwatchable. I am not sure why Guest thought this character was useful, but somehow, he did. If I ever meet him, I will certainly ask him. I need answers. Guest himself brings back a familiar character, and while I was initially excited, I wish he hadn’t.

Mascots is a disappointment, but not a terrible film. I hold Christopher Guest in such high regard, I expect so much from him. I don’t think he is losing his spark, I just think he’s struggling to find the same level of brilliance. I really hope this isn’t Guest’s last film – he is far too good to let this be his swan song. I really didn’t hate Mascots, but I didn’t love it either. I am not sure non-Guest fans will love this, and I really think it can only be liked by Guest aficionados. However, I would still suggest everyone gives it a shot – maybe it can motivate Guest to make a better film sometime. It has its charms, and it is still very funny – but it just isn’t a classic like the other films.

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