There's a good reason some talent remains undiscovered
With last year's Best In Show director Christopher Guest and his band of gifted improvisationalists skewered the world of professional dog shows to the delight of audiences and critics alike. However, prior to that "dogumentary," Guest perfected the "mockumentary" with 1996's Waiting For Guffman. A brutally hilarious look at the blood, sweat and tears that make up regional theater, Waiting For Guffman was improvised from a rough outline by the actors involved in the film. Edited to a breezy 84 minutes from over 80 hours of material, Waiting For Guffman finally arrives on DVD from Warner Brothers, with some lost scenes to boot.
Facts of the Case
Writer/director/actor Corky St. Claire (Guest) moved to the small Missouri town of Blaine to get away from the rejection he experienced on Broadway. Little did Corky know he'd find a second career at the helm of the Blaine Community Players, directing locally acclaimed stage productions like "Backdraft." Now the town council wants Corky to write and direct a musical based on the town's 150-year history for the upcoming sesquicentennial celebration. Corky casts locals in "Red, White and Blaine" including Dr. Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), a lovable dentist whose caught the acting bug late in life, travel agents Ron and Sheila Albertson ("the Lunts of Blaine" played by Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara), and part-time Dairy Queen worker Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey). When Corky receives a letter from Mort Guffman, a New York theatrical agent who will be personally attending the show, Corky and the cast think they may have a shot at a Broadway run. But as the curtain is about to rise on the hilariously horrid musical, Mr. Guffman still hasn't arrived. Exactly how long will our aspiring stars have to wait for Guffman?
If ever there was an institution worthy of parody, it is musical theater. The notion that people will break into song at any given moment, and even further the story's plot by doing so, is absurd. It seems to be a sign of our jaded sensibilities that film musicals are rarely made anymore. At the heart of Waiting For Guffman is a true love for all that makes up amateur theatre: the wooden acting, the flimsy sets, the cheesy songs. It's all part of the joke.
The brilliance of Waiting For Guffman is that no one in the film is in on it. Like Tim Burton's Ed Wood, Corky St. Claire is quite possibly the worst director of all time. Though he is determined to keep his show from being "a stinky product," Corky simply has no sense of smell. He actually thinks he's doing the best work of his career. Likewise, Corky's cast is charmingly self-deluded. They actually believe that this little production is their ticket to the Great White Way. Over the course of the film, we come to love and root for these characters because they make up for their lack of talent with a whole lot of heart. Just when we think the train wreck is about to happen, that these frauds will be exposed, we joyfully learn that their audience is equally talent-blind. Our heroes really are stars, albeit in their own small world.
For all of the crazy things that happen in Waiting For Guffman, Guest never lets it get beyond the realm of believability. Each of these characters is firmly grounded in reality and is so fleshed-out that we feel like we know them. In fact, I've seen shades of all of these characters in my limited experience with theater people. The actors clearly know the parameters of the characters and are careful not to step outside of those boundaries. In many ways, Waiting For Guffman is actually a subtle film. We learn more about the characters from their reactions to what is going on, rather than from the action itself. With a film like this, repeated viewing makes it that much more enjoyable. Every time the viewer discovers a new piece of comedy hiding in the corner of the frame.
To a certain extent, I think improvised comedy is a uniquely acquired taste. Since it comes from a place inside the actor, rather than the printed page, it feels "realer." For example, when Corky realizes that his young male lead will be unable to perform he throws a tantrum and spouts "I hate you…and I hate your ass face!" It's not a particularly funny line on paper, but as it bubbles out of the exasperated diva it's simply uproarious. Script that same line and it's not worthy of a Farrelly Brothers' movie. Improvisation is all about immediacy, and Guest has assembled the best in the business. Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy cut their teeth on SCTV, while Fred Willard worked with Christopher Guest in the mother of all mockumentaries, This Is Spinal Tap. Parker Posey, known for her work in many independent films, admirably holds her own with these veterans. But Christopher Guest's Corky really steals the show (both Waiting For Guffman and "Red, White and Blaine") when he must fill the role of the handsome, young ingénue. Needless to say, he couldn't be more wrong for the part.
Waiting For Guffman is presented in its original aspect ratio 1.85:1 presented in anamorphic widescreen. This is a very solid transfer, clean from any dirt or blemishes on the print. Colors are solid and fleshtones are accurate. The film was shot in 16mm, and retains a little bit of the grainy quality associated with that film stock. But most importantly, Waiting For Guffman looks like a real documentary.
Waiting For Guffman is presented in Dolby 2.0 Surround. This film doesn't require much in the way of audio. Dialogue is very clear. The musical numbers are full and without distortion. It's a nice mix that won't leave anyone disappointed. Also included are English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles, though I cannot say how funny this film would be in any of those languages.
In the special features department, Waiting For Guffman is almost an exact replica of its cousin, Best In Show. Like that disc, this one contains a screen-specific audio commentary by Guest and Levy. The tone for this commentary is very casual, almost too casual. Though both men are obviously brilliant comedians, this track is far from a laugh riot. That would be excusable if the purpose of the commentary was to cram as much information as possible into the 84 minutes, but Guest and Levy have surprisingly little to say about this film. There are long gaps in the recording, which are even more frustrating because the film's actual audio is completely silent. Whoever mixed this commentary track made a huge misjudgment. There are a few gems of information here; they talk of some deleted storylines that never made the final cut (or, incidentally, the deleted scenes portion of the disc), and Guest's inspiration for the film, a junior high production of "Annie Get Your Gun." But overall, this commentary is a disappointment.
Thankfully, the disc's thirty plus minutes of deleted scenes do not disappoint. Like Best In Show, much of the excised footage is as good as anything that made the final cut. Highlights include some alternate epilogues for Ron and Shelia as well as Dr. Pearl, but the real treat here is the entire seven-minute performance of "This Bulging River," an hysterical anthem to the flood that once ravaged Blaine. This full-cast number was written by Spinal Tap alum Michael McKean and cut for time. It is obvious as to why many of these scenes didn't make the cut, however, as they stray from the major storyline of the film. Still, given the immense amount of footage shot, the editors of Waiting For Guffman should've won an Oscar in their category. All of the deleted footage is presented widescreen. Though it's not of the quality of the actual film, it's still entirely watchable. Guest/Levy commentary is optional over the deleted scenes as well. Here Guest and Levy are more consistently talkative, and the actual film audio track is audible whenever they are not speaking.
Also included are Cast/Filmmaker Profiles, essentially listing all the major players, though oddly without any references to their other projects. The widescreen theatrical trailer is also on the disc, and it contains several humorous Corky soundbites that didn't make it into the final cut. The Production Notes are extremely brief and don't offer much insight into the process of making this film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Warner Brothers could've beefed up this disc by adding some more supplemental content. A behind-the-scenes documentary might've provided an intriguing look at how such a unique film was made. On the other hand, a documentary about this mockumentary might've spoiled the "faux" reality Guest was trying to create. Another alternative would've been to emulate MGM's special edition of This Is Spinal Tap, which contained several "in-character" supplements. A commentary by "Corky St. Clair" would've catapulted this DVD to another level of excellence. But I don't want to underestimate the value of the supplements that have been included.
After a long wait, Warner Brothers has put together a disc of Waiting For Guffman that should appease fans of this terrific comedy. Picture and sound quality is exceptional, and the deleted scenes make this release a definite winner. If you're a fan of improv and Saturday Night Live-style parody or of musical theater, then you'll really want to check this one out.
Not guilty! Wait no more—add Waiting For Guffman to your collection right away!
[Editor's Note: It's been announced that early test copies, like the one Terry reviewed, had an incorrectly mixed commentary track. When you purchase it in stores, you will be able to hear the film's soundtrack during lulls in the commentary.]
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