Appellate Judge Dave Ryan always makes sure he's home for Purim, so save him a plate of rugalach.
"In every actor there lives a tiger, a pig, an ass, and a nightingale. You never know which one's going to show up."
In a little over a decade, Christopher Guest has made quite a name for himself as a writer/director. Guest's unique "mockumentary"-style films, co-written with former SCTV star Eugene Levy—the transcendent Waiting for Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind—have appeared every three years or so like clockwork, earning critical praise and cult success. Many comedy fans consider Guest's films to be key pieces of their DVD collections.
Fans were aghast, therefore, when Guest announced that he had no further interest in the "mockumentary" format, and that his future films would be more traditional in nature. Sure enough, 2006's For Your Consideration isn't a mockumentary, it's a straight comedy. True, it has the same Guest ensemble as its cast, the same largely-improvised script, and a structure that's almost identical to Guest's other films, but the feel of the film is entirely different. Sadly, this switch to a more traditional comedic format is not immediately successful. For Your Consideration feels like an 85-minute collection of outtakes. It's never a good sign when the funniest parts of the film are found in the deleted scenes section. However, the talent level of Guest's ensemble is so high that even a collection of outtakes is entertaining. It's by far the worst of Guest's four films—but it's still better than most Hollywood comedies.
Facts of the Case
Home for Purim is just a small little independent film, adapted by Philip Koontz (Bob Balaban) and Lane Iverson (Michael McKean) from their off-Broadway play. Set in 1940s Valdosta, GA, it's about a family coming together to celebrate Purim, their dying mother's favorite holiday. A pair of veteran journeyman actors, Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer) and Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara), are playing dad and mom; two younger actors, Brian Chubb (Christopher Moynihan) and Callie Webb (Parker Posey), play their children. Director Jay Berman (Guest) holds the relatively smooth production together.
When Oscar buzz starts surrounding three of the actors, everything changes. Suddenly handed something that could be more than just a simple indie film, the head of the studio, Martin Gibb (Ricky Gervais), and the film's producer, Whitney Taylor Brown (Jennifer Coolidge), start to meddle in order to make the film more "accessible" (i.e. more marketable). The actors start to obsess about the fame and fortune that an Oscar win could bring them…
Pity the man who is damned by unrealistic expectations. Christopher Guest has been a pivotal element of two of the greatest comedies in my lifetime: This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting For Guffman. Most people I know can quote significant chunks of either film from memory. The two films are part of our collective pop culture consciousness. We know it's wrong to expect a Guffman every time Guest and Eugene Levy put together a new film—but we do anyhow. Inevitably, we'll be disappointed—the question is how disappointed we will be.
For Your Consideration, coming from anyone other than Guest, would probably be considered a major filmmaking statement; an announcement of a writer/director to be reckoned with. It's not perfect, but it's intelligent and funny in ways that most cookie-cutter Hollywood films are not. But it is a Christopher Guest film; hence our expectations are much, much higher.
So what, exactly, is wrong with For Your Consideration? Honestly, it's somewhat difficult to describe how and why this film just seems to not work. There are a couple of general issues, though, that stand out.
• Large parts of it just aren't funny
This is the biggest flaw of the film—there's an excess of seriousness in it. Honestly, we all should have seen this coming: while A Mighty Wind, Guest's last film, was funny, the core of the film was the openly sentimental drama surrounding Mitch and Mickey and their possible reunion. In fact, the beginnings of this trend could be seen back in Best In Show; although most of that film centered on the absurdity of the whole dog show scene, there was a lot of serious character interaction mixed in.
Here, the trend takes its next logical step: For Your Consideration is ultimately about a handful of serious characters, who aren't played for laughs, surrounded by eccentrics who provide the funny. Hence, the core story isn't really a comedy at all—it's a story about these nondescript actors accidentally teetering on the edge of life-changing fame. It's a well-told and interesting story, but it's just not a funny story. (In fact, there's a series of segments late in the film—avoidance of spoilers prevents me from describing them further—that, given our experience with these characters, comes off as just mean and cruel instead of funny. Interestingly, the original ending of Waiting For Guffman—available on the Guffman DVD—was viewed by test audiences as exactly that—cruel. Perhaps Guest has a mean streak that isn't readily obvious?)
• It's a bit too "insider"
Much of the film involves the making of Home for Purim. The problem here is that it's a very realistic look behind the scenes of a motion picture production. If you're familiar with the movie industry, you'll pick up on a lot of humor that will escape those without production experience. The problem here is in the volume of the "insider" humor. If you don't pick up on that, large tracts of the film will seemingly be devoid of humor. Admittedly, Guest's films have never been ticketed for broad-spectrum appeal, but For Your Consideration comes very close to being targeted solely at residents of Los Angeles County. That's a bit too exclusive.
• It can't make up its mind on its protagonist
Although all of Guest's films have been ensemble pieces, they've all ultimately been about one or two of their characters. Guffman was all about Corky, Best In Show and A Mighty Wind were all about Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara. For better or worse, this gave us, the viewers, a discernable path through the films' otherwise complex narrative threads.
That isn't the case with For Your Consideration. Yes, the film does try to focus on Marilyn Hack (O'Hara), but—as he admits in the commentary—Guest only realized that Marilyn was really the main character after the film had been shot. He filmed additional post-production scenes in an attempt to make that clearer, but it's not enough. Marilyn's story isn't sufficiently central in the bulk of the film. Hence, the film lacks that anchor for the viewers that an obvious main character provides. The result is a film that seems to be telling three or four unique stories, and tells none of them particularly well. If Marilyn is the core of the film, why is so much time spent on Victor's shaky career? Answer: because Victor's functionally just as much of a main character as Marilyn. As are Brian and Callie, for that matter. Add in the plethora of side characters, and you've got a disorienting tangle of characters, none of whom the movie makes us care about to any great extent.
• It feels incomplete
For Your Consideration is a very short film, clocking in at 86 minutes including the end credits. Structurally, there's about an hour that covers the making of "Home for Purim," and 20 minutes covering the aftermath. We leave the "Purim" production before it's complete, though. The Oscar buzz starts buzzing, some relationships are strained, and then, boom—it's months later and time for the nominations to be announced. What happened during the remainder of the production? Where's the mocking of one of the easiest targets possible, the godawful press junket experience? Where's the rest of my film??? As if that weren't bad enough, there's another jump post-nominations, straight to the typical Guest-ian coda that we've come to expect from these films. As I said above, the net result is a film that feels more like a substantive collection of outtakes. In fact, it feels an awful lot like the hour-long unused footage reel on the Spinal Tap DVD. Mind you, that Tap footage is, in many ways, just as entertaining as the feature. It's just not a coherent, complete film. For Your Consideration is definitely more coherent and complete than that, but it's not as coherent and complete as Guest's other films, which is a keen disappointment.
• There isn't enough of the best stuff
This is a comedy. As noted above, our central story isn't really the comedic part of the film—the side players are. Hence, we wind up wanting to see a lot more of those side players than we get in the film. Case in point: the fantastic Jane Lynch and Fred Willard as the hosts of an Entertainment Tonight-like program. Willard and Jim Piddock (who is also in the ensemble here) practically stole Best In Show as the television announcers covering the Philadelphia dog show; Willard and Lynch do the same here in For Your Consideration. Once again, Willard plays the self-absorbed dolt par excellence; the real gem, though, is the superb Lynch, his competent sidekick who obviously feels the pain of having to work with this idiot on a nightly basis. They get a good deal of screen time, but frankly I wouldn't have minded if the whole film had been about them. Also, their funniest scene by far was cut from the film, and appears as one of the deleted scenes in the extras.
Another eye-opener—and a new addition to the Guest ensemble—is British ventriloquist Nina Conti (the daughter of Tom Reuben, Reuben Conti). Conti works with a small monkey puppet named Monk. She has a small but memorable part as the weatherperson on "Wake Up, LA," a morning talk show in Los Angeles that interviews Marilyn and Victor. In the film proper she's intriguing, but when you see the extended version of her appearance in the extras, she's hilarious. Why were those extended scenes cut? It's an 86 minute film! It's not like it was running long!
It's not just the side characters, either—there's a fantastic scene in the extras where a clearly terrified and rattled Marilyn breaks down into incoherence on "Wake Up, LA." (Even the monkey has no idea what she's talking about.) The scene used in the main feature has her stiff and silent; I think the wacky breakdown was funnier and more in line with the character. Apparently Guest disagreed. Well, it is his film, I suppose.
• Guest needs to stop cutting himself out of his own film
If you listen to his commentary on Waiting For Guffman, Guest reveals a shocking and almost incomprehensible fact: in his original edit of the film, he had completely edited himself (i.e. Corky) out of the film. Thankfully, he was talked out of that edit, which would have been disastrous: as noted above, Corky is really the main character of the film. However, that editorial impulse has persisted ever since. Apparently, Guest the director/editor doesn't really want much of Guest the actor in his films. He hasn't taken a lead role in any of his post-Guffman films; For Your Consideration is no different. The problem here is that Guest is great in these roles, and leaves us wanting to see more of him.
Nowhere is that more evident than here. Guest plays Jay Berman, the director of Home for Purim. Berman is a wacky amalgam of various recognizable directors—he's got the nebbishness of Woody Allen, the slightly world-weary manner of Sydney Pollack, and the sharp bluntness of John Frankenheimer, plus a dash of Steven Spielberg, if Spielberg had just swallowed a handful of Valium. At times he seems like he doesn't care; at other times, you can tell that he really wants to make a decent film. He's a hack, but a hack with talent. There are precious few scenes where Berman expounds on his theories of directing and acting, but those scenes are great. I'd like to see more of Jay Berman, but Guest limits his screen time. Alas.
So, you say, this must be a terrible film, right? Of course it isn't. The film has a lot going for it. First, the talent of the cast. Besides the actors already mentioned, all of the usual suspects—John Michael Higgins, Larry Miller, Ed Begley, Jr., Michael Hitchcock, Don Lake, Deborah Theaker, Scott Williamson, and Paul Dooley—are back for another go-round. They're all hand-picked by Guest, and all are excellent at thriving in his highly improvisational format. But there are a couple of additions to the pack this time around. Most notable is English comedian Ricky Gervais, best known as the creator and star of the original British version of The Office. Gervais is arguably the most talented comedic actor to come out of England since the Monty Python troupe; he doesn't, however, have a great deal of improv experience. Putting him into a Guest film was either a no-brainer or a risk, depending on your point of view. In practice, though, Gervais fits right in with this bunch. He may not have an improv theater background, but he gets it. In this film, he has a relatively small supporting role, but he definitely nails it. Here's hoping he becomes a regular part of the Guest ensemble—great things could come from this pairing.
Another new face—actually, a promotion of sorts—is Christopher Moynihan. He's not new to the ensemble; he played the second-in-command (the guitar player) of the New Main Street Singers in A Mighty Wind, a relatively minor role. But here, he's bumped up and given a lead role (he's basically slotted into a role that probably, in the past, would have been played by Michael Hitchcock). He acquits himself quite well, keeping up just fine with O'Hara, Shearer, Posey, and Guest. Also new to the principal gang is Rachael Harris (Kicking & Screaming), who appeared in A Mighty Wind and Best In Show in small roles. Here, she's a Method actress playing the lesbian lover of Posey's character in Home for Purim. It's not a huge role, but again, she plays it well.
There are a couple of cameo appearances that, one would hope, might turn into more regular appearances in Guest's films. John Krasinski (The Office) plays opposite Dooley in a clip from a cop film where nothing actually happens (the cops argue over whether they filed the proper form or not); he would be a perfect addition to this ensemble. There's also a very funny scene with Richard Kind (Mad About You) and Sandra Oh (Sideways, Grey's Anatomy) as obsequious marketing people pitching potential movie posters.
Sadly, this DVD presentation from Warner Bros. is a bit underwhelming. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is extremely disappointing. The picture is grainy; the opening credits show substantial digital dithering (the "squarish" look of coarsely-encoded digital video). For a second, I thought I was watching an AVI on my computer. The image did get a bit better as the film wore on; perhaps this is just a bandwidth problem with a certain area of the disc. In any event, it wasn't very pretty. On the plus side, the color balance is well done, neither too gaudy nor too muted. The transfer does a good job of showcasing Guest's decision to make the Home for Purim sets and scenes look very '40s-ish in their coloring. Audio is provided in a Dolby surround track. It's clear and fine, but this isn't really a surround-heavy soundtrack. No complaints, though.
If you've read this far, you're probably figuring that the deleted scenes/bonus footage extra—which, as I've noted, has some of the best scenes in the film—is the best of the extras. And you'd be correct in that assumption. It's not solely a deleted scenes reel; there are some behind-the-scenes clips, including a sit-down interview with Nina Conti and Monk and an outtake of a scene with Gervais' character being interviewed by the film's EPK (electronic press kit) person, where neither actor can keep from laughing. (This answers the oft-asked question "how can they make these films without breaking up?"—the answer is, they can't.) The commentary by Guest and Levy is about what you'd expect if you've listened to their commentaries for the other three films: informative, but you wish they would talk more. A gallery of the posters for Home for Purim (the ones being pitched by Kind and Oh in the scene mentioned above) and the film's trailer round out the extras package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Part of me thinks I'm selling this film short; that it's a film that will grow on you with repeated viewings. It's hard to predict what films will have that sort of delayed-action impact. For example, had I reviewed The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy after my first viewing, I would have gone on and on about how disappointing and crappy the film was. Now, after about 20 viewings, I'm addicted to it. It just had to sink in. Will For Your Consideration turn out to be a similar kind of film? Is it really brilliant, but only after repeated viewings? I wonder.
And really, I don't want to give the impression that this is a bad film. It's "bad" only within the context of Christopher Guest films, and even then, "bad" is a highly relative term. By objective standards, it's an above-average comedy that's quite entertaining. Our expectations of a Guest film are so high, though, that anything less than outstanding seems like a disappointment.
Christopher Guest's first step away from the "mockumentary" format (notwithstanding his directorial role on Almost Heroes) is somewhat of a mixed bag. If you're a Guest fan, unless you set your expectations very carefully—and my hope is that this review will help you do that—you're almost certain to be disappointed by this film. It just doesn't feel like it belongs in a group with Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind. You'll probably like it, but you won't like it that much.
However, even though the whole ultimately isn't satisfying, the sum of its parts is enough to recommend the film. There are a good number of quality laughs here, and it's always enjoyable to see these actors improvising. Given Guest's track record, I'm more than willing to forgive him for delivering a film that doesn't live up to his high standards. A flawed diamond is still, after all, a diamond.
Guilty of a lesser included offense, and sentenced to probation. Let's hope this is just a hiccup in what has been a stellar partnership for Guest and Levy.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Writer/Director Christopher Guest and Writer/Actor Eugene Levy
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