Waiting for Guffman is worth a little chuckle, but that’s about it.
Guffman is a “mockumentary” about the little town of Blaine, Missouri, and the play they’re putting on for their sesquicentennial celebration. The dentist (Eugene Levy), the travel agents (Fred Willard & Catherine O’Hara), a mechanic (Matthew Keeslar), and the Dairy Queen girl (Parker Posey) are recruited by the “New York” director (Guest himself) to put on the play of the town’s history. The movie’s title refers to a New York theatrical agent who has promised to fly to Blaine and review the performance.
The actors and filmmakers do a good job of making the movie look like a documentary. Willard and O’Hara are very good as the husband and wife travel agents. The movie appears to have been shot, at least partially, on 16mm film (the favored medium of film documentarians) with lots of hand-held camera.
There are a few spots, however, where the movie is clearly not a documentary, such as when the “documentary” camera shows us a character who is supposedly locked in his bathroom, alone, or when the auditioning hopefuls are too comically “bad” to be believable. These moments are distracting and make one realize that this is all an elaborate joke. Somehow the “mockumentary” is less funny when we are forced to remember that these caricatures are carefully written to manipulate us into laughing.
Guffman could be said to be original because it is not about a band. Ever since The Rutles, it seems these mockumentaries must inevitably be about bands — CB4, Fear of a Black Hat. But really, Guffman is just a rehash of the formula that worked so well in This is Spinal Tap. The movie’s advertising even links it to This is Spinal Tap and indeed all of the Tap are involved in the film (Guest directed and Harry Shearer and Michael McKean helped with the music). Since the movie invites comparison to Spinal Tap, I will compare them.
Waiting for Guffman, as Bentsen might say to Quayle, is no Spinal Tap.
Spinal Tap was funny start to finish. Guffman has a funny premise but the joke(s) start(s) getting old near the end (thankfully, it is not too long). The characters in both movies are comic caricatures, but the characters in Spinal Tap are more sympathetic and resilient. The “members” of Spinal Tap went on to record a second album (after the soundtrack album) and somehow, they will live forever in our culture, despite our derisive laughs. The characters in Guffman are as funny, but they are disposable. Maybe it’s the difference between laughing at those above us and laughing at those below us. When Rush Limbaugh insults the President, we know he can take it. When he starts taking jabs at Chelsea Clinton, the same jokes are less funny. I’m overstating the point, but I never felt as if I was supposed to like Corky St. Clair (Guest) — I was just supposed to laugh at him.
The movie does have funny segments and several of the interviews made me laugh out loud — the UFOlogist, the abductee who confuses “feelings” for “feeling”, and the self-serious city council members. But the overall experience was nothing memorable.