Christopher Guest has made a career out of turning the knobs up to 11. Ever since he uttered that famous line in the legendary mock-doc Spinal Tap, Guest has been finding new and hilarious ways of gathering groups of master improvisers to play life's not-so-beautiful losers. The riotous theater geeks of Waiting for Guffman, the screw-loose dog people of Best in Show, and the over-the-hill folkies of A Mighty Wind all were of a piece with the moronic metalheads who once erected a dwarf-sized replica of Stonehenge on their world tour.
At his best, Guest can coax his actors into unscripted riffs that are funnier than anything a writer could dream up; you leave the theater feeling like you just witnessed lightning being captured in a bottle. So it's a disappointment that his latest effort, the thin Oscar spoof For Your Consideration, is the least funny and the least inspired movie Guest has been involved with in years.
Blame it on the subject matter. All of Guest's other films were set in weird parallel universes where no person could be too petty or bizarre. Changing his milieu from the Midwest to Hollywood, it seems, has sapped much of the life out of the director and his capable troupe of actors. For Your Consideration takes as its subject the awards-hungry cast of an in-production nightmare titled Home for Purim. A would-be inspirational Jewish holiday picture, the movie within the movie is set in the 1940s, and comes complete with a musical number, a lesbian daughter (Parker Posey) and the most apple-pie war-veteran son ever (Christopher Moynihan).
The movie may be sub-Lifetime trash, but the real drama is going on behind the scenes. Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara), the veteran actress who plays the dying matriarch of Purim's clan, hears an Internet rumor that her performance is Oscar-worthy, which immediately sends her and her co-stars into an overacting fury. As Purim grows more ridiculous, everyone in Hollywood descends upon the production like vultures, ready to stake a claim in what they think will be the Little Movie That Could.
Much like the peripheral characters in Purim, it seems as though every talented comedian in Hollywood angled for a part in For Your Consideration. They're all given very little screen time. The sublime Ricky Gervais (of the UK version of The Office) has but a few throwaway lines as a slimy producer; his assistant, Sideways' brilliant Sandra Oh, has even less than that. Only longtime Guest cohort Jane Lynch makes a significant impression, deftly sending up Entertainment Tonight's Mary Hart.
This wouldn't be a problem if the leads were in better tune with each other, but Guest's actors seem less engaged than they have been in his other films. Part of this certainly has to do with his decision to abandon the mock-doc format: Everyone seems more tamped down and more restrained than in, say, Best in Show. Guest's static camerawork and uninspired staging doesn't allow for any unplanned brilliance; no one's allowed to bare his hilariously ignorant soul to an unseen interviewer.
The movie's saving grace is O'Hara, who, like Marilyn, is a perennially underrated actress in her own right. In Guest's movies, she's always been able to suggest a glimmer of true sadness underneath all the pathetic desperation. But even that is undercut here: Her Oscar dreams predictably dashed, all Marilyn can hope for is to be attacked by reality-TV cams as she takes out the trash. Even the losers in a Christopher Guest film deserve better than that.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.