A MIGHTY WIND
This might sound like an overstatement, but with A Mighty Wind, writer-director Christopher Guest, aided immeasurably by regular co-scenarist Eugene Levy and his cast of brilliant improv artists, has secured his place as the most distinctive voice in American film comedy since the '70s heyday of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. (And judging by the applause that greeted the film's finale at the screening I attended, I'm not alone in thinking this.)
Guest, of course, played the sweetly clueless guitarist Nigel Tufnel in the peerless This Is Spinal Tap, and both that film and that character have served as models for what Guest-as-director has strived for ever since: a delicate blend of the satirical and the genuinely respectful. Guest's films are about losers who don't think they're losers; the rewarding shock of his movies is that, by their finales, neither do we. In Waiting for Guffman, my favorite comedy of the past 20 years, the talentless community-theatre hacks performed their big production with such infectious energy that you were completely won over; it made perfect sense when their silly musical received a standing ovation. In Best in Show, you were so tickled by the pride and love the foolish canine owners had for their pets that the film's dog-show contest became legitimately thrilling. This time, Guest turns his unique gaze to the world of has-been folk musicians, and the results are, quite simply, extraordinary. It doesn't quite have Guffman's laughs, and no character matches the full-throttle hilarity of Fred Willard's in Best in Show, but A Mighty Wind is richer than anyone had the right to expect; you'll laugh throughout, but you'll also have to fight back a tear or two.
Using their pseudo-documentary style that brings out the genius in their ensembles, Guest and Levy provide a marvelously simple plotline: After a legendary folk-music producer dies, a benefit concert is to be held in his memory, which reunites three groups of once-famed performers - the squeaky-clean "neuftet" The New Main Street Singers; the cheesy trio The Folksmen (played by the members of Spinal Tap themselves - Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer); and the former lovebirds Mitch & Mickey (Levy and Catherine O'Hara), whose relationship died along with their careers. The film traces the groups as they prepare for the televised event, and we wait to see if The New Main Street Singers' chipper façade will crumble, if The Folksmen will kill one another, and whether Mitch & Mickey's reunion will end in reconciliation or Mitch getting committed (again).
A Mighty Wind is such a delicate comedy that to even describe its humor is to risk ruining it, because Guest and company provide almost no separation between the ridiculous and the touching; you can laugh like hell at the goofy song lyrics but you can't laugh at how earnestly they're being sung. Most of the actors, too, perform with a subtlety rarely witnessed in American comedy. The deeply funny and moving potrayals by Levy and O'Hara, in particular, make comic inspiration seem like a state of grace, and spectacular turns are also delivered by Guest/Levy usual suspects Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban, and Michael Hitchcock. (And the mere sight of Guest, McKean, and Shearer riffing together warrants huge, appreciative laughs.) Fans of Guest's oeuvre will find more than enough to love in A Mighty Wind - I can't remember the last time I had so much fun at the movies - and, hopefully, the uninitiated will find themselves similarly enthralled.
DADDY DAY CARE
Comedies that slavishly follow a "foolproof" formula are generally bland beyond measure, but what can you say about one that doesn't even get the formula right? If you've seen Daddy Day Care's trailers, you know what it's aiming for: Eddie Murphy plus pre-schoolers equals Nonstop Hilarity. And even without seeing the film, most sentient viewers will guess, correctly, that Murphy's latest will follow this blueprint: (1) Murphy, assuming it'll be a walk in the park, will open a home-based day-care facility, (2) will learn that handling a group of toddlers is far more difficult than he imagined, (3) will eventually find a successful, though unorthodox, way of managing a dozen Ridilin-deprived youths, (4) will gain newfound respect for the multi-tasking of his put-upon wife, and (5) will form a stronger bond with his own son, all before the credits roll. (Award yourself bonus points if you guessed that he'd also thwart the machinations of a rival pre-school's cold-hearted headmistress.) Add to this can't-miss formula Murphy's audience-friendly mugging, a capable cast featuring Jeff Garlin, Steve Zahn, Regina King, and Anjelica Huston, and a dozen adorable rugrats, and you've got yourself a winner, yes?
No. That Daddy Day Care isn't at all funny should come as no surprise - trying to name the last Eddie Murphy comedy that actually worked (1999's Bowfinger, maybe?) has become something of a party game - but what's shocking is how misguided its very premise is. The film's genre models are obviously Mr. Mom and Kindergarten Cop, and though no one will ever put those movies on a list of Hollywood's 100 Greatest Comedies, at least they knew where their laughs were supposed to come from; Michael Keaton's and Arnold Schwarzenegger's characters were so sure they couldn't be steamrolled by a bunch of tow-heads that the comedy stemmed from watching them get their just desserts. We didn't laugh at the kids' aberrant behavior, we laughed at the leads' reactions to that behavior. Daddy Day Care, on the other hand, seems to find the behavior itself funny. From the start, Murphy is presented as a well-meaning, decent fellow trying his best, but there aren't any yuks there, so instead, the "comedy" comes from the hateful antics of the children; it's supposed to be a laugh riot whenever a kid kicks Garlin in the groin, or trashes Murphy's living room, or acts in any other way like Linda Blair. (I pity the parents who take their young kids to this film; they could easily find themselves the victims of prepubescent ultra-violence on the ride home.)
Maybe this could have been bearable if Murphy's methods of winning the kids over were original, or in some way amusing, but those scenes appear to have been left on the cutting-room floor. Near as I could tell, the turnaround comes from Steve Zahn telling Murphy to just "listen to them," and we don't even witness Murphy doing that; I'm guessing that the filmmakers, led by director Steve Carr, assumed we're so well-versed in the genre's formula that such rudimentary scenes were expendable. Nothing in Daddy Day Care works, and some of its elements are far worse than they have any right to be. (God willing, this will be the low point in Anjelica Huston's career.) Rather than being about them, the movie appears to have been made by juvenile delinquents.