We’re about a half-hour into Christopher Guest’s new comedy Mascots when a familiar figure, one played by Guest himself, enters the scene with a sweetly swishy “Hello-o-o-o!” It’s been almost 20 years, but he’s just as you remember him: the goatee, the bowl cut shaved two inches above his ears, the polka-dot blouse, the pants that can only be described as “indescribable.” (They look like clown pajamas designed by Calvin Klein.) Granted, the guy is moving a little slower than he used to, and his speech is a little stilted, and there are liver spots where there weren’t before, and nothing he says or does comes as much of a surprise. But what does it matter? It’s Corky St. Clair, for Pete’s sake – that indefatigable, talent-free impresario from Waiting for Guffman! To quote the man’s adorable sycophant Steve in 1997: “Corky! CORKY-Y-Y-Y!!!”
I literally can’t remember the last time I was so happy to see the return of a beloved screen character. And despite its inarguable flaws, I also can’t remember the last movie I loved quite the way I love Mascots, Guest’s first feature-length directorial outing since 2006’s For Your Consideration. (Having debuted at this fall’s Toronto Film Festival, Guest’s latest began streaming on Netflix on October 13.) After gently skewering community theatre in Guffman, dog-show participants in 2000’s Best in Show, and the folk-music scene in 2003’s A Mighty Wind, Guest and co-writer/co-star Jim Piddock now turn their attention to the plushly larger-than-life world of sports mascots, introducing us to a half-dozen contenders for the Gold Fluffy Award at Anaheim’s World Mascot Championships. If you’ve seen Guest’s previous mockumentaries (a term Guest reportedly dislikes but will forever be associated with), you know what to expect: gags both astoundingly silly and savagely smart; largely improvised dialogue by scores of comedic talents; a climax that you can’t believe is as emotionally resonant as it is; Fred Willard. And if you’re a fan of even one of Guest’s movies, or his underrated and under-seen HBO series Family Tree, it’s inconceivable that you wouldn’t find a lot to adore here, too, even if you’re left with a not-so-sneaking suspicion that you’ve adored it all before.
We get the embittered married couple played by Zach Woods and Sarah Baker, whose passive-aggressive hostility, in and out of costume, is reminiscent of the toxicity between Best in Show yuppies Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey. We get Posey herself as a modern-dance armadillo, employing her recognizable spacey-hillbilly cadences from Guffman. We get Hitchcock and Don Lake trading snippy banter à la their warring movie critics in For Your Consideration. We get a ceaseless parade of additional Guest veterans: Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Bennett, Jennifer Coolidge, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Christopher Moynihan, Chris O’Dowd, and, for good measure, the voice of Harry Shearer. (Although we don’t, alas, get Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, or Catherine O’Hara, one of the film’s chief virtues is that you don’t spend any undue time missing them.) Consequently, Mascots is perhaps less an original work than a greatest-hits package – a reunion tour for a favorite band you never wanted to see break up. Even if they’re playing nothing but oldies, damn is the music sweet.
It’s pretty easy to pinpoint what doesn’t quite work here. Enjoyably over-stuffed though the proceedings are, there are a few extraneous characters given too much screen time (principally Matt Griesser as O’Dowd’s bouncer buddy), and several promising setups are simply abandoned: Exactly how does Moynihan’s mascot entertain his charity-event audience after realizing they’re all blind? Meanwhile, more than a handful of comic routines are far funnier in theory than execution, including the predictable crumbling of Woods’ and Baker’s baseball-themed act, and Woods’ elevator rendezvous with Susan Yeagley’s cheerful tramp. (Neither of these deficiencies, however, is the fault of Silicon Valley and The Office great Woods, who’s as wonderfully awkward as ever.) Yet if Mascots is hit-and-miss, its ratio is about 20 to one in favor of hits.
Here’s a partial list of moments and segments that, now that the film is streaming, I may have to sneak daily viewings of for weeks to come: Posey casually stretching on the lawn of Mississippi’s Amelia Earhart College for Women. O’Dowd humping an unsuspecting hockey fan as “The Fist.” Higgins’ TV executive boasting about the reach of his Gluten-Free Channel (“which is on your basic-tier cable package that runs in over two cities nationwide”). Willard’s cluelessly offensive agent grilling worm mascot Brad Williams about his dwarfism. Competition judges Lynch and Begley barely masking their mutual contempt. Moynihan’s infectious excitement as he drives to meet the high-school crush who barely remembers him. (God, how I’ve missed Moynihan! Why doesn’t he get more work?) The pink bunny making advances on an over-eager clam. Balaban’s sugar daddy cooing over Coolidge’s unapologetic gold-digger. Bennett experiencing “policeman Tourette’s” after getting pulled over by Anaheim’s finest. (Between this and his achingly hilarious portrayal in the Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, Bennett stands as movie comedy’s 2016 MVP.)
Then there are the championship routines. And this is where Guest’s singular brilliance really comes into play, because after more than an hour of laughing with and at our goofy contenders, their mascot acts prove to be ... surprisingly excellent! Just as he made it completely understandable when crowds stood and cheered for Guffman’s über-tacky staging of Red, White, & Blaine! and A Mighty Wind’s PBS folk concert, you watch Mascots’ climactic Fight for the Fluffy and think, “I’d totally pay to see that!” The ambulatory pencil and sharpener, I thought, were awesome, if not quite as thrillingly ridiculous as the janitor and the dancing clog he plunges from his oversize toilet. A feminist armadillo delivers a riotously bleak head-scratcher; a skating fist aggressively flips the bird. And Bennett’s Sid the Hedgehog, in his slapstick take on a traditional English-music-hall number, performs balancing acts that defy belief – and that may leave you, like his audience, laughing, gasping, and applauding. Guest clearly cherishes these weirdos and their singular talents. But it seems that more than anything, he cherishes their hopefulness, which you can tell by the way he allows them their dignity; the humor here may be occasionally biting, but it isn’t mean-spirited. Mascots is a joyous bear hug of a movie. When it ended, I felt absolutely wonderful, and was left with an immediate urge to watch it all again.
THE ACCOUNTANT, KEVIN HART: WHAT NOW?, and MAX STEEL
Oh yeah, and stuff opened at the cineplex this past weekend, too.
The biggest hit, as anticipated, was The Accountant, director Gavin O’Connor’s thriller in which Ben Affleck plays Christian Wolff, an autistic math savant who doubles as a hired assassin. O-o-o-o-o-kay. Screenwriter Bill Dubuque’s narrative, as you might expect, is beyond preposterous, and with all due respect to both the star and those challenged by the condition, an autistic Affleck proves nearly indistinguishable from a Batman Affleck, as he doesn’t bring much to either character beyond a muted somnolence and staunch refusal to smile. But even though there’s too much plotting, and much of that plotting is laughably contrived, and the “shocking” reveal near the finale is easily guessed within the first half-hour, the movie is still kind of fun. O’Connor, returning to a surprising number of themes previously explored in 2011’s excellent Warrior, pulls off stirring action set pieces, and he keeps the mostly nonsensical proceedings moving at a speedy clip; I may have rolled my eyes a lot, but I never yawned. Although he’s stuck with quite possibly the longest, silliest explaining-what-we’ve-seen scene since the finale of Psycho, J.K. Simmons is a fine, strong presence in an ensemble boasting the similarly welcome Cynthia Addai-Robinson, John Lithgow, Jeffrey Tambor, Jean Smart, and non-romantic interest Anna Kendrick. (It feels almost perverse that the film’s most engrossing element, and easily its most honest and affecting one, is Kendrick’s lengthy monologue about a prom dress.) Jon Bernthal is utterly spectacular, sinister yet oddly empathetic, as a black-clad enforcer with a knack for convincing people to kill themselves. And while The Accountant as a whole is wanting, it’s filled with incongruously delightful fringe touches, from the friendly farmers who take a shine to Christian to the killer’s off-the-books payment via priceless paintings and a first-edition copy of Action Comics #1. Guess Affleck wanted to read up on the enemy.
Landing at number-two on the weekend’s box-office charts was the concert documentary Kevin Hart: What Now?, and considering the comedian’s climactic routine details an invasion of privacy while he’s sitting in a men’s room stall – with rear projection making it look like the 5-foot-4 Hart is dangling off the edge of a gigantic toilet – that number-two placement seems appropriate. The concert scenes were shot during Hart’s 2015 performance at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, where the man played to a record-breaking crowd of more than 53,000, and obviously your enjoyment of the film is going to be determined by your general fondness for Hart and his stand-up. Can I plead the Fifth on this? I’ve enjoyed him in a bunch of movies, most recently and fervently in Central Intelligence, About Last Night, and his voice-over duties for The Secret Life of Pets. I’ve just as often found him grating and repetitive and too frequently employed (my silent, bitchy rejoinder to the subtitle What Now? was “Maybe a long vacation?”), and made it through all of 15 minutes of his 2013 standup special Let Me Explain before switching over to something I actually found funny. So the long and the short (sorry, Kev) of it is that I didn’t much care for What Now? even though Hart demonstrates a true gift for voices, and appears genuinely moved by his show’s thunderous reception. After a labored, interminable spy spoof featuring Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Ed Helms, and others who should’ve just said no, we finally get to the Lincoln Financial Field stage, and after what felt like 45 minutes of the star greeting his Philly crowd, we finally get to Hart telling jokes. They’re not great, and Hart is so typically manic in his movements and deliveries that the camera can barely keep up with him; it’s like a concert doc filmed in the style of Hardcore Henry. My fellow patrons, however, appeared to have a ball. And Hart, I thought, did come through with some solid routines on his Luddite dad, his wife’s increasingly incensed text-messaging, and his home-invasion panic after an evening viewing of The Conjuring – the latter my favorite routine of the film, and one that Hart performed largely non-verbally. Coincidence?
Meanwhile, landing further down the box-office rankings, and not even cracking the top 10, was Max Steel, which is apparently the origin story for a popular action figure by Mattel. I am shivering with anticipation at the thought of all the Barbie and Hot Wheels movies that may await us – and by “shivering with anticipation” I of course mean “contemplating suicide.” Given its cash intake and zero-percent “freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, there’s no point in kicking this sad, chintzy little piece of sci-fi/superhero hooey while it’s down. (If you’ve miraculously managed to land on one of its trailers, this strangely unadvertised outing about an energy-harnessing teen and his wisecracking robot companion is about as bad as it looks.) So let me just say that Ben Winchell, who’s appealingly reminiscent of Andrew Garfield, is unexpectedly winning as Max, Andy Garcia provides hammy entertainment as a completely unsurprising surprise villain, and Maria Bello, bless her, again treats us to her effortless gravitas and magical ability to make even the most dunderheaded lines sound emotionally astute. She deserves far, far better than Max Steel, but who doesn’t?
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