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November 17, 2006 | Comments ()


It's Such a Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever

For Your Consideration / John Williams

Film Reviews | November 17, 2006 | Comments ()

Even given the (perhaps inevitable) diminishing returns of the Christopher Guest ensemble movies, it would have been difficult to predict an effort as flat and tone -deaf as For Your Consideration, the group’s latest.

The previous entries in the unofficial series — Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and their still-unequaled grandfather, This is Spinal Tap (directed by Rob Reiner, but featuring Guest as co-writer and one of the all-time great characters, Nigel Tufnel) — all presented themselves as documentaries (birthing “mockumentary,” a term that shares both the utility and aesthetic shabbiness of “alt-country”). On its surface, Consideration, which revolves around the production of a low-budget Hollywood movie, doesn’t adhere to the mockumentary conceit, but it manages to cheat its way back toward the template. Instead of addressing a documentarian’s camera, the characters simply speak to entertainment reporters who descend on the set in the wake of the film’s increasing Oscar buzz.

There’s your trouble. The movie in question, Home for Purim, is a ridiculous and mangled anachronism, a story about a Jewish family in the 1940’s American South, acted in the overblown manner — and against the swelling soundtrack — of much older cinematic fare. It’s impossible to conceive of a single context, even a satirical one, in which its producers could get the keys to a current-day Hollywood set, much less generate talk of Oscars. Purim’s actors (with the occasional exception of Catherine O’Hara, who, as Marilyn Hack, comes closest to deepening the paltry material) are not presented as riffs on craven, unjustifiably pretentious, or even dimwitted-but-shrewd Hollywood types — they’re not much different than the outright rubes in Waiting for Guffman.

There’s a running gag that involves the Purim crew’s lack of computer savvy — confusion about what to call the Internet, wonderment at how printers work, etc. It’s a completely unbelievable way to draw a group of 21st-century artists, however loosely they can be described that way, but it does inadvertently parallel the way Consideration’s take on its subject is something you’d expect from your least hip great-uncle.

Fred Willard and Jane Lynch play the hosts of “Hollywood Now,” which could be called a caricature of “Entertainment Tonight,” if that show weren’t already a caricature. (Part of the problem with everything here, but only part, is the hoariness of the prey.) Next to O’Hara’s performance, Lynch’s take on the over-enthused, seemingly ageless, creepily toothy Mary Harts of the world is the funniest thing in the movie.

All of Guest’s regular cronies are in fine shape, sometimes getting a laugh just because their timing is so highly refined, but mostly they’re wasted. Asking them to apply their world-class improv skills to this enterprise is like asking the Three Tenors to sing “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

Add to that this irony: Guest’s previous efforts have been so beloved by discerning audiences and other comedians that several respectable actors show up here for what amounts to a cup of coffee, presumably just for the honor of being involved — including Ricky Gervais, Sandra Oh, and Mary McCormack (the latter two appearing barely at all).

Despite all the problems, the first half of the movie is only bad enough to cause a Guest groupie to make the kind of self-deluding excuses for it that are sometimes required in a faltering relationship: Oh, you’re just always around her after she’s had a hard day. You should see her when we’re alone together. But in the second half, the wheels come off. We’re treated to a painfully unfunny scene from the one-woman stage show of Callie Webb (Parker Posey). (The show’s supposed to be painfully unfunny, of course, but we should find that funny. Not even close.) Willard’s entertainment reporter seeks out and purposefully embarrasses several actors who weren’t nominated for Oscars, a montage based on such a gross misunderstanding of the back-scratching relationship between stars and the mainstream press that it made me cringe. Finally, Home for Purim — having been changed to Home for Thanksgiving by studio suits nervous about how the Jewish themes would play — is released and promoted by its stars. For the press junkets, poor O’Hara is rewarded for her standout work with humiliation, as Hack is turned into a Botox-riddled, cleavage-showcasing freak, a parody that might have been fresh and funny a dozen years ago. It’s hard to remember.

As with the writing staff of “The Simpsons,” or the guys in R.E.M., or anyone else once brilliant and trailblazing who starts limping a bit and occasionally forgetting people’s birthdays, there’s no joy in pointing out that Guest is more than likely past his prime. But those who head to For Your Consideration are advised to do so in the same spirit that they trudge to the couch for a favorite long-running sitcom well on its way to stale — with a much greater sense of loyalty than of hope.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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