It's a good thing that Christopher Guest, impresario of the gently faux documentary, wasn't listening when irony was given the boot in the mass media a few years back. Since helping to make cult history with the mock documentary "This Is Spinal Tap," about a lugubriously heavy metal-and-hair band, Guest has been doing his part to help deliver irony from the taint of cynicism. In his own subsequent films, "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show" and now "A Mighty Wind," the writer-director has proved that there are times when the art of poking delicate fun isn't just one of the more sincere forms of flattery -- it's among the most loving.
After skewering community theater in "Waiting for Guffman" and the world of competitive dog shows in "Best in Show," Guest now turns his sights on the folk-music scene. As before, the comedy pivots on a central event that unites like-minded souls in disharmonious convergence. This story launches after Irving Steinbloom, legendary producer and founder of the Folktown label, leaves control of his modest empire to his son Jonathan (Bob Balaban). An accidental folk enthusiast, Jonathan -- who as a child founded the Young Jewish Polo League (they played on Shetland ponies to minimize damage) and at his mother's insistence played chess in a protective helmet -- has set about organizing a tribute that will bring together the senior Steinbloom's best-known groups.
Like Guest's earlier features, "A Mighty Wind" unfolds along the same unobtrusive lines of a mainstream documentary, except with better lighting. The invisible auteurs documenting the tribute appear to be some of the more prescient filmmakers in history or perhaps some of the luckiest. When Jerry Palter (Michael McKean), the lead guitarist for the Folksmen, throws his arms around former band members Alan Barrows and Mark Shubb (Guest and Harry Shearer) for the first time in years, the camera is right alongside him. (The cinematographer doesn't miss a beat, including Shubb's Birkenstocks and white knee-highs.) Sometime later, the camera catches Jonathan's cooing lies into the phone in a bid to wrangle Mitch Cohen (co-writer Eugene Levy), the missing link in the coffeehouse cult of two, Mitch & Mickey (Catherine O'Hara rounds out the duo).
The mock documentary may seem like too easy a contrivance, but what's notable about Guest's movies isn't how much humor he and Levy wring out of their dog people and folk musicians but how much humanity. The jokes would be funny even if they weren't perfectly timed, but what makes them come across as so poignant is the seriousness with which the director and his co-conspirators deliver their jabs and japes. It isn't that Guest is afraid to mock his characters; it's that he takes them seriously, even when he's going in for the kill. The terrifyingly upbeat New Main Street Singers, a nine-member ensemble (or "neuf-tet") with turquoise sweater vests and enameled white teeth, would have been right at home on "The Lawrence Welk Show," but they're also at home here.
Risen from the clove-cigarette ashes of the 1960s folk movement, the New Main Street Singers (led by John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch) embody new folk at its most commercialized and soulless: They're tailor-made for family night in Branson, Mo. The group's opposite in music and temperament, the Folksmen have remained true to their modest origins, principally by not performing together. Harboring no covert animosities, the trio has proudly, even smugly retained a purity of purpose that's made them ripe for Guest's brand of comeuppance, signaled here by the warp and weave of hair loss. Like tree rings, their hairstyles -- which range from Barrows' modified tonsure to Palter's misbegotten toupee -- mark the passage of time, but they also serve as reminders that even the most righteous are vulnerable to vanity.
Guest would, I think, like us to read a lifetime of idealism, narcissism and disappointment in Shubb's Amish-like beard and gleaming pate. But the bass player never stays around long enough for us to get a grip on him. Crammed in with a dozen other equally attention-grabbing types, the Folksman exemplifies Guest's gift for mortifying detail. But there are just too many seductive, loopy personalities stuffed into this diffuse story, and like many of the characters he remains a quick sketch. Even the more nuanced Mitch & Mickey, former king and queen of the black-turtleneck scene, remain blurry around the edges. There's pathos in the fact that the same youngsters who sang about "the mighty wind of equality" have drifted into vague middle age, but there's scarcely anything new in that story.
If Guest didn't evince such great affection for his characters it would be easy to interpret that fuzziness as a comment on the 1960s generation. Rather, it may be that having pushed spurious nonfiction film to its comic apotheosis with "Best in Show," he's reached the limit of this style of lampooning. To watch these inspired performers ricochet against one another -- to see the sparks fly in O'Hara's eyes and revel in the glory that is Fred Willard -- is to wonder what Guest could achieve if he ditched the mock documentary. Even now it's difficult to know if he has any real visual talent or how to gauge his chops. About all that does seem clear is that few filmmakers today can show us our most ridiculous selves with as much merciless wit and tender mercy.
'A Mighty Wind'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for sex-related humor
Times guidelines: Exceedingly mild sex-related humor
Bob Balaban ... Jonathan Steinbloom
Christopher Guest ... Alan Barrows
John Michael Higgins ... Terry Bohner
Eugene Levy ... Mitch Cohen
Jane Lynch ... Laurie Bohner
Michael McKean ... Jerry Palter
Catherine O'Hara ... Mickey Crabbe
Parker Posey ... Sissy Knox
Harry Shearer ... Mark Shubb
Fred Willard ... Mike LaFontaine
A Castle Rock Entertainment production, released by Warner Bros. Director Christopher Guest. Writers Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy. Producer Karen Murphy. Director of photography Arlene Donnelly Nelson. Production designer Joseph T. Garrity. Editor Robert Leighton. Music produced by C.J. Vanston. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
In selected theaters.