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Waiting for Guffman

Friday January 31, 1997

     The municipality of Blaine, Mo., "a little town with a big heart in the heart of the country," is about to celebrate a very special event.
     While it seems like only yesterday that an unscrupulous guide abandoned a wagon train after convincing the gullible travelers they'd arrived in California, in fact it's been 150 years since Blaine's glorious founding. And the town is determined to pull off an event that promises to be "the standard by which sesquicentennials will be judged."
     For those not fortunate enough to make it to Blaine for the festivities, a documentary crew is on hand to record it all for "Waiting for Guffman," a sly and gleeful comedy showcase that pokes clever fun at the American musical, amateur theatricals and anything else that's not nailed down.
     The standard by which all mock-documentaries are judged is, of course, "This Is Spinal Tap," and the moving force behind "Guffman" is Christopher Guest, alive in our memory as Tap's lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel.
     Guest directed and co-wrote "Guffman" (with "Second City's" Eugene Levy) and also stars as Corky St. Clair, the creative tornado behind "Red, White and Blaine," the musical pageant that celebrates Blaine in all its misbegotten glory.
     For there is more to this town than the legend of its accidental founding. There's the story of how the weary feet of President William McKinley led to Blaine's becoming the Stool Capitol of the World. And then there was the celebrated UFO sighting/potluck dinner of 1946. All of which has to get into "Red, White and Blaine."
     Collaborating with Guest on "Guffman's" music and lyrics are his "Tap" cohorts Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. Together they come up with some splendid numbers, including the peppy "Stool Boom" and the parallel "Nothing Ever Happens in Blaine" and "Nothing Ever Happens on Mars."
     But "Waiting for Guffman" offers more than music. We're privileged to be behind the scenes in everything from the choosing of the cast to the inevitable crises of confidence when it looks as if "Red, White and Blaine" might never get to pack the high school gym after all.
     Which, given the kind of talent there is in Blaine, would have been a shame. Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara), for instance, in private life travel agents who have never ventured out of town, have done enough local theater to be known as "the Lunts of Blaine."
     Then there are the newcomers, like Dr. Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), the tone-deaf dentist who thinks he had a relative who worked in Yiddish theater. Or Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey at her most irresistible), the soignee Dairy Queen counter girl who wows Corky St. Clair with her spirited version of "Teacher's Pet."
     Finally, it does all come down to the charismatic Corky, a veteran of too many years spent as far off Broadway as you can get. Back in Blaine as the high school drama teacher who wanted audiences to "feel the heat" in his legendary staged version of "Backdraft," Corky has the passion and the vision to override skeptics like music teacher Lloyd Miller (Bob Balaban), apparently the only sane individual in town, and get "Red, White and Blaine" up on its feet.
     Similarly, there would be no "Waiting for Guffman" without Guest, who came up with the concept, gathered a sprightly group of practiced farceurs around him and even brought the arch Corky St. Clair, with his goatee, bowl haircut and perennially puzzled look, to querulous life.
     If Corky has a hidden agenda, it's that "Red, White and Blaine" could become his ticket to Broadway. He confidently expects the arrival of a certain Mr. Guffman, the representative of a powerful New York producing organization, sure that his show has what it takes. That may be an open question, but "Waiting for Guffman" will inspire no such doubts.

Waiting for Guffman, 1997. R, for brief strong language. A Castle Rock Entertainment Films production, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Christopher Guest. Producer Karen Murphy. Screenplay by Guest & Eugene Levy. Editor Andy Blumenthal. Music and lyrics by Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest. Production design Joseph T. Garrity. Cinematographer Roberto Schaeffer. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Christopher Guest as Corky St. Clair. Eugene Levy as Dr. Alan Pearl. Catherine O'Hara as Sheila Albertson. Fred Willard as Ron Albertson. Parker Posey as Libby Mae Brown. Bob Balaban as Lloyd Miller.

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