Directed by Christopher Guest
Now streaming on Netflix
Mounting a parody of the dryly amusing, humane mock-documentaries made by Christopher Guest movies seems like a fool’s errand best left to YouTubers. And yet Mascots, made by Guest himself, feels a bit like a parody of the Guest formula. Once again, a group of lovable and/or funny weirdos on the fringes of the performing arts—here sports team mascots, rather than local theater folk or folk singers or show-dog owners or Oscar-hungry actors—come together for a big event (here a mascot competition with ill-defined terms) and pine for relatively small-time honors (here the potential that future mascot competitions will be broadcast on the conceptually nonsensical Gluten-Free Channel).
There’s nothing wrong with formulas; noticing something does not invalidate it. But Guest’s first movie in ten years and first mockumentary in thirteen feels very much like a Netflix project like Fuller House or Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, which it to say a small-screen version of decade-or-decades-later legacy sequels. It even revives Guest’s Waiting for Guffman character Corky St. Clair, to initially amusing but essentially little effect. The propensity of these endless revivals seems like something Guest could ably satirize, and I say that not to backseat-drive his comedy but because those thoughts are a natural byproduct of watching Mascots. It’s kind of dull, it gets duller as it goes, and you start to think of ways it could have been funnier.
To be honest, I’ve never been fully in love with Guest’s post-Spinal Tap output, and even less so with the stuff that followed Guffman. His goofing on people who wear mascot costumes is really only slightly more esoteric than ribbing folk singers in the year 2003. (Imagine if Spinal Tap had come out in the mid-aughts; it would have still been funny, but might seem less authentic, less easy to mistake for the real thing.) But Mighty Wind had an emotional component that Mascots lacks, and the new film doesn’t fill that space with enormous laughs. Much (though not all) of Guest’s rep company is back, but many of the best bits belong to a welcome infusion of newcomers: Zach Woods and Sarah Baker as a couple in a mutually destructive relationship, and Chris O’Dowd as the rowdiest mascot of the bunch, a hockey enthusiast whose costume is a giant fist. They’re some of Guest’s less cuddly creations, and their aggression is welcome.
The nastier jokes will doubtless rub some the wrong way, as Guest has, like most movie satirists, been accused of holding his characters in contempt. I’m not so sure it’s his characters he treats that way, though, so much as a whole system of showbiz small-timers that seems rooted in the media landscape of twenty or thirty years ago. His ideas about obscure cable channels seem to spring from a mind that hasn’t watched TV since cable systems topped forty channels; in addition to the Gluten-Free Channel, the movie mentions its predecessor, the Varicose Veins Channel, and the sheer conceptual ridiculousness trumps any intended absurdism. A filmmaker whose work is premiering on Netflix might be expected to know at least a little about shifting models in media consumption (then again: Woody Allen and Amazon), but Guest shows little interest in the niche-ification of show business, the way that the smallest slivers of content can accrue mobs of fans. It’s yet another area that could have inspired some clever material from his gifted improvisers.
Mascots doesn’t even seem to recognize the basic form it purports to imitate. Aesthetically, it bypasses any documentary conventions that don’t recall other Guest movies. There are still funny bits along the way; it’s hard to screw up Fred Willard playing a boob obliviously questioning a little person about how he lives. But the comedy doesn’t build; it decays to the point where we’re left watching a lot of actual mascot performance footage at the climax. A few are amusing and interesting. Most are not. It all starts to look like Guest’s famous synchronized swimming short from SNL, with sillier costumes and less inspired bad choreography.