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Blown Away

Mockumentary provides gales of laughter

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Let's make it clear from the start: A Mighty Wind, the latest "mockumentary" from writer-director-actor Christopher Guest and his posse, doesn't contain nearly as many laughs as his previous effort, 2000's Best In Show, or probably even the one that came before that, 1996's Waiting for Guffman. Don't get me wrong: There are plenty of big laughs and little smiles to be derived from his latest picture -- at times, it's so funny it hurts -- but it can't quite match the number of guffaws provided by Show, which seemed to average one laugh every 14.8 seconds.Yet the film does provide an acceptable tradeoff, since there's a genuine element of poignancy that was nowhere to be found in their previous pictures. And then there's the icing on the cake: the delightful song score, with every number written by a member or members of the cast. By the time the picture reaches its climax -- the performance of the title tune -- many moviegoers will already be planning that trip to the CD store.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. A Mighty Wind opens not as it ends, with a celebration of life, but instead with a death. Music promoter Irving Steinbloom has passed away, and to honor his memory, his son Jonathan (Bob Balaban) has decided to organize a live concert for a PBS-style TV station that would bring together the three 60s folk groups that Irving had championed back in the day.

In two of the instances, there seems to be no problem. The Main Street Singers (now billed as The New Main Street Singers because of the influx of younger blood) are only too happy to be in front of a large audience -- small wonder, since their critical stock isn't as high as that of the two other folk groups being courted for the show. Spearheaded by the perpetually chipper Terry Bohner (John Michael Higgins) and his wife Laurie (Jane Lynch), a former porn star whose credits include something called Not So Tiny Tim, the band often resembles a cult as much as anything else, with Laurie's outlandish New Age ideas taking precedence over more logical avenues of expression.

For their part, the Folksmen are also happy to be invited to join the celebration. It's been a long time since Alan Barrows, Jerry Palter and Mark Shubb have performed together, and all three are anxious to see if they can in effect pick up where they left off. Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer tackle the roles of the Folksmen, which will delight those who've been patiently waiting for the stars of This Is Spinal Tap (the guiding spirit behind all mockumentaries) to share the screen again.

The only potential snag to Jonathan's dream of a reunion concert is landing the services of the headline act, the formerly lovey-dovey duo of Mitch and Mickey. Acquiring Mickey (Catherine O'Hara) isn't too difficult -- now married to a catheter salesman (Jim Piddock), she could use a taste of the old life -- but Mitch (Eugene Levy, who co-scripted with Guest) is another matter altogether. Suffering through an emotional meltdown after he and Mickey split up years earlier, Mitch has been enduring life in a shell-shocked state, with a dazed look on his face that suggests he's having trouble merely functioning on a day-by-day basis. Mitch finally consents to take part in the broadcast, but his perpetual moodiness keeps everyone on edge, with many wondering if he will completely crack before the curtain goes up.

Guest has managed to bring back every single major player from Best In Show -- not just the nominal name stars like Ed Begley Jr. and Parker Posey but also the lesser known likes of Michael Hitchcock and Don Lake. It's wonderful to see all these actors together again -- it's like a celluloid version of a theatrical repertory company -- even if several of them are only playing ever-so-slight variations on their Show characters. In the case of Fred Willard, though, that's a blessing. Willard, who popped up during the second half of Show and proceeded to steal the film with his gaspingly funny turn as an obnoxious dog show commentator, likewise turns up here and there as Mike LaFontaine, an obnoxious band manager whose mouth travels a mile a minute but whose brain can only manage a yard a day. Spending more time discussing his own failed ventures than the music he's promoting, LaFontaine insults politicians, mangles Moby Dick and pushes one harebrained scheme after another -- barely pausing to come up for air, he's like a runaway train that's been shot out of a cannon. Willard, equipped with patchy white hair and a constant leer, plays him like a man possessed.

Yet for all of Willard's shenanigans, the performance that stays with you the most is the one by Eugene Levy. There's real drama in watching this lost soul trying to get in touch with a distant past that provided many happy moments, and the hesitancy with which Mitch and Mickey cautiously interact with each other, never sure of themselves or each other, conveys a genuine tenderness that momentarily slices through the satire. Detractors have accused Guest's movies of condescending toward their characters; maybe so, but in Levy's capable hands, Mitch becomes not a figure of ridicule but one of redemption. In that respect, he's the perfect embodiment for all the characters and bands on view in the film: As the folk groups gather to perform the climactic concert, we wish them only the best, happy to see their careers flicker to life one last time before being inexorably blown out by a culture that has seen fit to catalogue them in a wistful, waning past.


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