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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Cultural Thunderdome: For Your Consideration Reviewed

Three events enter, one event leaves. That's rather how I'm feeling recently as I play catch up in writing about some of the things we've done over the last few months. For example, I no sooner get an opportunity to fan girl all over my new tenor boyfriend and his Beautiful Opera Hair than we go to see Webb Wilder at Fitzgerald's last night and will be returning there both tonight and tomorrow for Robbie Fulks and Pat McLaughlin, respectively.

Spoilers for For Your Consideration follow.

So JRH didn't like For Your Consideration. Given that we are very frequently on exactly the same wavelength regarding movies (so long as they are not movies for which you'll want to be routinely using your DVD player's ability to zoom in and enhance, if you take my meaning), this was distressing news. Nonetheless, it's not like we weren't going to see a Christopher Guest movie. After all, Mr. Guest figures prominently in my fool-proof spousal choice system. On the CD that the Zombie King and I made for our wedding favor, "When You're Next to Me" by Mitch & Mickey was one of the songs on it. At the time, I wrote this: "If you're in the market for a spouse, I suggest that you apply this simple, but very important test: Show them a Christopher Guest movie. Does your intended get it? Does he or she love Corky? Is the Congress of the Cow a difficult position for him or her emotionally? This folky little love ditty from A Mighty Wind embodies all that's good and loving about these movies as far as I'm concerned. No one can touch Guest in the 'affectionate parody' arena."

I can't remember when we actually saw the movie. It was sometime just after Thanksgiving, I think. It's certainly Guest's least likable movie, but it's not Attack of the Clones Bad (although for the record, I didn't think Attack of the Clones was the worst of the three).

One of the biggest strengths of Guest's movies is the tightrope of humor that he walks. He unflinchingly shows us that his characters are ridiculous, oblivious, narcissistic, parochial, and sometimes just not that bright. But he loves his characters and is just as eager to show us the bizarre ways in which they are quick witted, generous within their limited means, talented, and comfortable in their own wacky skins. I've always thought that he does this beautifully, and I tend to love his characters almost as much as I think he does.

But not everyone sees it that way, I guess. Notably, The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum sees in Guest nothing but loathing for himself, his characters, and humanity in general. No accounting for tastes and all that—a chestnut that became more meaningful to me than ever when I found myself, along with my sister-in-law, trying to explain to my sister why satire a la Borat can't really be evaluated on the same terms or taken, more or less, at face value in the same way as racist screed from Mel Gibson. Have I mentioned that I think my sister needs to get off the frontier more frequently?

Anyway, I have to admit that For Your Consideration is not as adept at walking the line between laughing at and laughing with. I don't think it's necessarily a function of deviating from the mockumentary format, although that seems to contribute and there are some signs that Guest (and Eugene Levy as a cow-riter) was not entirely comfortable leaving that format behind. For a relatively short movie (86 minutes), there's a lot of screen time spent with individual characters or small groups being interviewed in one way or another. Early on, these take the form of a PR minion (Carrie Aizley) trying to get insights from the cast and crew to market an unmarketable melodrama set in the 40s about a family of Southern Jews. These dead end pretty consistently.

Later, it gets worse, as Fred Ward's character monopolizes a painfully long and stilted Entertainment Tonight-style interview with the whole cast. I've got nothing against Fred Ward, but a little of the character he plays in these (which is the same every time) goes a long, long way. Guest also sticks to the interview format when he sends his leads on the talk-show circuit as the Oscar Buzz ramps up, and some of these work better than others. For example, I had to watch through my fingers as the newly frosted Harry Shearer busted a disturbing move on the set of Chillaxin', but in the promos and opening segments for the ET-style show, Deborah Theaker's stiff body language and blank-to-pouty facial expression cracked my shit up every. single. time.

In addition to the come-hither-get-ye-hence relationship with the mockumentary style, the central conceit is a big problem. Yeah, I just said central conceit in an entry about a Christopher Guest movie, you wanna go? And I might just go to the Aristotelian Unities place before it's over, so as the current movie quote meme advised: "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy Matilda."

Seriously, the movie itself is a problem as the thing that supposedly has brought all the characters together. Initially called Home for Purim, it really does seem to be a kind of demented Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?. Harry Shearer is the weak, pencil-thin-mustachioed father, and Catherine O'Hara plays the possibly dying matriarch of a Jewish family in the Deep South in the 1940s (?). Their son (Christopher Moynihan) is home from the Navy for the holiday, and they are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their daughter (Parker Posey). Posey does arrive, but has her female lover (Rachael Harris) in tow.

The problem with it is not so much that it's completely unbelievable that anyone would ever make this movie. It's much more that there's no particular reason why anyone on the canvas would make the movie. Sure, Shearer and O'Hara's characters are more or less washed up and need the work; Posey and Moynihan are a would-be Brangelina-type couple, and Harris is an "Indies Only" method snob. But Jennifer Coolidge's (Who, by the way deserves major kudos for her Barbara Streisand impression being the only non-heinous thing about Date Movie. Alyson Hannigan: Here's a nickel. Get yourself a fucking agent and some taste.) role as producer is inexplicable, and the script takes no trouble whatsoever to explic it, seeming content to "insert freakish trophy wife with unlimited cash #464." Worse yet, our brief exposure to the writers (Bob Balaban and Michael McKean, both sorely underused) and the director (Guest himself, taking much more of a back seat than in any movie so far) indicate that they know little or nothing about Jewish culture or their characters.

There seems to be no reason why anyone is concerned with telling this particular story. Without the passion of Corky and his crew for the hopelessly hokey celebration pageant, of Cookie and Gerry Fleck for their terriers, and so on, there's little to love and a lot to be uncomfortable with regarding Home for Purim. There are two moments when the love for the demented creation shines through. First, Catherine O'Hara and Parker Posey, bless their little cotton socks, do have a genuinely schmaltzy-but-touching mother-daughter scene, despite the horrible Yiddish-meets-Southern dialogue (could there be any more hyphens in that sentence?). The second is the Purim Song (unsurprisingly written by Levy and Guest) that the family sings around the table. But these are too little love and far too late. By the time the studio instructs everyone not to be so "in your face" about "the Jewish thing," and the title gets changed to Home for Thanksgiving, it doesn't even feel like a cheat that we saw no resistance from anyone.

Guest remains true to the structure of the other movies in that For Your Consideration contains the traditional "fast forward X months" segment. But in this case, it contains the climax of the movie, as it were, and isn't simply a wry, bittersweet coda as it is in the others. I couldn't estimate how long this section actually is, but it must be in the neighborhood of 20 minutes, so it represents about the last 25% of the movie. That's a long time to be watching the sell outs the characters have become, especially when we never really got around to loving them in the first place. I will say this for Guest, Catherine O'Hara's first appearance in sell-out mode is the most shocking moment I've experienced in the theater since I saw Old Boy. Just before the inevitable climax of all the selling out, there's a party scene at the house of a studio suit (played by Ricky Gervais). It's plastic and miserable and uncomfortable and unkind (Parker Posey and Catherine O'Hara are quite good in this scene, it's worth nothing), and yet the real coda of the movie goes to an even darker, meaner place.

Wow, that all comes out sounding a lot more like JRH was right. I still don't think that's the case. There are still a lot of funny moments in the movie, and most of the performances from regulars and newbies alike, are whole-hearted and impressive, if not lovable. I wouldn't go so far even as to say that none of the characters is likable. Both O'Hara and Shearer are good enough that I hated the sins but liked and had empathy for the sinners. And for most of the others, it was more that the script gave them such short shrift that I didn't know enough about them to really get them.

It's a movie that's worth a rental, but real fans of Guest should steel themselves for a spotty effort.

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