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Big Time in a Small Town

The backwaters of our great republic are probably no more infested than the cities with photographers whose pictures are pure accident, novelists in need of remedial English or actors chugging along on grand illusions of adequacy. Indeed, every busboy and skateboarder in Los Angeles is waiting for a callback from Spielberg, and if there's a cocktail waitress in all of Brooklyn who can't out-sing Barbra Streisand, she isn't admitting it.

But small-town delusion has a comic sweetness all its own, rooted in the old American yearning to move out and make good. The master satirist Christopher Guest knows this, and he uses it to fuel a ninety-minute romp in love and anarchy called Waiting for Guffman. For my money, it's the first really funny movie of 1997, and one of the most original.

Guest's inspiration was This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner's groundbreaking parody of rock documentaries, in which Guest played the burned-out lead guitarist, Nigel Tufnel. Thirteen years later he has come up with a spirited "mock doc" of his own, supposedly chronicling the efforts of a troupe of rank amateurs to mount an original musical celebrating the 150th anniversary of their Midwestern hometown.

Blaine, Missouri, exists only in the overheated imaginations of Guest and his co-writer, former SCTV stalwart Eugene Levy, but it suggests every burg that has ever draped bunting around the courthouse square and thrown a party for itself. Blaine even has its own creation myths--a comic miscalculation by the town's westbound founder, who believed he'd reached California; a crucial visit by President McKinley that eventually gave the place its nickname ("Stool Capital of the World"); and a close encounter (and potluck supper) with extraterrestrials in 1946. When town historians and city officials proudly recall these stories to the camera--deadpan--it cracks you up.

Naturally, these are also the pivotal events in "Red, White and Blaine," Guffman's wonderfully awful show-within-a-show. But before we get to opening night (which is also closing night), Guest takes us on a tour of assorted backstage crises, hilarity in the local chop suey joint, bewilderment in city council chambers and some other welcome sights.

The show must go on. At auditions, a mild-mannered homeowner in a Sunday-best suit has his way with an especially raw speech from Raging Bull. Blaine's stagestruck travel agents and community-theater veterans (Fred Willard and another SCTV alumnus, Catherine O'Hara) galumph through their "Midnight at the Oasis" duet. Next stop: Hollywood. The clumsy local dentist, Dr. Pearl (Levy), is convinced he's found his true self before the footlights, and a counter girl from the Dairy Queen (Parker Posey) discovers a thrilling alternative to building hot fudge sundaes. The show's narrator? A retired taxidermist (Lewis Arquette) from the trailer park. Down in the orchestra pit, the trumpet player doubles as the tympanist--one hand for each instrument. They're all as touching as they are ridiculous.

Guest himself grabs the plum. He's Corky St. Clair--Blaine's lone theater director, choreographer, costumer and resident muse, late (he says) of Manhattan. Gotten up in a yellow silk kimono and a fringe of dirty-blond bangs, Corky is nine-tenths optimism and one-tenth talent, just like his struggling cast. The only difference is that he's already directed fellow Blaine-ians in Barefoot in the Park and a literally incendiary stage version of Backdraft, so everybody takes him for an authentic creative type. Now his deliverance is at hand. Corky believes, right down to his dancing toes, that "Red, White and Blaine" will get him back to Broadway, where he belongs. After all, a producer he may or may not know has promised to send a representative named Guffman to scout the show in Missouri. One look at Corky's tuneful masterpiece and, well, look out, Shubert Alley.

"You find people," Corky's talking head tells the camera, as if he were Hal Prince being interviewed by the New York Times. "Is it karma? Maybe."

Then again, maybe not. The people Corky has "found" are, of course, the only ones who've shown up for tryouts at the high school gym. His suspension of disbelief gives Waiting for Guffman its surreal tilt, much of its wacky energy and its affection for innocent people who can't help blundering toward the abyss. Talk about Samuel Beckett.

Whenever Guest's busy camera pretends to grab an interview with a local UFO abductee, a music teacher in a snit or a totally incompetent actor in the throes of artistic rapture, we get not only a good laugh at the absurdity of life, but a glimpse of its tenderness, too. Not every joke and gibe hits the mark, but this swift hour and a half may be one of the funniest backstage comedies ever filmed. It's certainly one of the most subversive, for the sharp satire of small-town vanities that goes hand in hand with its assault on "artistic" temperament. But Guest's fellow-feeling for his stumblers and bumblers is just as apparent: He nods indulgently at their foolishness at the same time he's mocking them, then gleefully blurs the difference for us. It's a gift Corky St. Clair could scarcely imagine.

Waiting for Guffman.
Screenplay by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. Directed by Christopher Guest. With Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard and Parker Posey.

 
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