Movie review: 'A Mighty Wind'

EntertainmentMoviesChristopher GuestEugene LevyCatherine O'HaraTelevisionHarry Shearer

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

First, a confession: I wasn't crazy about Christopher Guest's "Best in Show" or "Waiting for Guffman." Both had their inspired moments but mostly struck me as condescending - gifted comedic actors posing as silly people.

On the flip side, I loved Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap," the first of this string of mostly improvised "mockumentaries" starring Guest, Michael McKean and other actors who would become Guest regulars. These has-been rockers were just as dim as their counterparts in the later films, but the performers truly loved these guys and their world, and we did, too.

"A Mighty Wind," directed by Guest and written by Guest and Eugene Levy, returns much of the "Spinal Tap"/"Guffman"/"Show" crew to music land, specifically the folk scene, and in the beginning you feel like you're on happy, familiar ground. The Spinal Tap threesome - Guest, McKean and Harry Shearer - is back as the Folksmen, and the music-biz jokes pick up where "Spinal Tap" left off; for instance, one of the trio's early records failed because it was manufactured without a hole in the center.

Guest and his collaborators demonstrate they still have a knack for writing and performing genre-parroting tunes that are catchy in their own right. The movie also makes you nostalgic for an era when album covers were so iconic that they were ripe for parody; the Folksmen's albums include "Singin'," "Wishin'," and "Pickin'."

The tweaking here feels affectionate, yet you soon suspect that these subjects make for awfully easy pickings.

The movie's premise is that a legendary folk-musician manager, Irving Steinbloom, has died, and his nebbishy son Jonathan (Bob Balaban) attempts to mount a tribute concert in New York City's Town Hall. The featured acts are the Folksmen, the New Main Street Singers - second-generation squares who wear blue sweater vests and play gigs in front of amusement park roller coasters - and Mitch & Mickey (Levy and Catherine O'Hara), a romantic '`60s duo that succumbed to a nasty divorce.

Also caught in the movie's wide net are Fred Willard, who stole "Best in Show," as the New Main Street Singers' bleach-haired manager who used to be on a short-lived TV series called "Wha' Happened?" and keeps repeating its insipid catch phrases (yep, they're insipid); Ed Begley, Jr. in a particularly funny bit as a Nordic-blond public television producer named Lars who keeps dropping Yiddishisms into his patter; Don Lake and Deborah Theaker as Jonathan's feuding siblings; and Jennifer Coolidge and Larry Miller as an annoying publicity team.

Mitch and Mickey provide the film's grounding, as well as its heart. He's like a slow-talking acid casualty who belly-flopped off of reality's diving board after his split with Mickey, yet Levy never makes him a joke; between each pause of his halting delivery lurks a mystery.

O'Hara's remarried Mickey, meanwhile, is just as complex in her own way, viewing the re-emerged Mickey with a mixture of tenderness, concern and anxiety. Their performance of their signature tune, "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," which traditionally would feature a kiss as the song wound down, provides the movie's one truly suspenseful, emotional moment.

Yet given all that's going on, "A Mighty Wind" feels wan, like it couldn't muster up enough strong material to fill its 92 minutes. The laughs come early and often, then dry up like the characters' post-`'60s careers.

The main problem is that Guest and Levy are cutting off such a narrow slice of the folk-music pie. Aside from the highly generalized title song, which exists primarily for the sake of some snicker-inducing puns, the movie ignores folk's function as protest music - an unfathomable choice given that these artists came of age in the '`60s. The incursion of rock onto the folk scene also isn't explored.

Folk music, by definition, interacted with the outside world; Guest keeps his subjects in a bubble that can be easily popped. Rather than delving into any social commentary - which is what satire does, after all - the movie is content to poke fun at anachronistic acts that wouldn't have been out of place on "Sesame Street" or, in the case of the New Main Street Singers, toothpaste commercials.

You may share his sense of how goofy they are, but by the third time the Folksmen are repeating the corny punch line of their sole hit "Old Joe's Place," you realize that Guest has returned to his condescending ways, after all. If not for Mitch and Mickey, "A Mighty Wind" might just blow away.

"A Mighty Wind"
Directed by Christopher Guest; written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. A Warner Brothers release; opens Wednesday, April 16. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sex-related humor).
Christopher Guest....Alan Barrows
Eugene Levy....Mitch Cohen
Michael McKean....Jerry Palter
Ed Begley Jr.....Lars Olfen
Mary Gross....Ma Klapper
Catherine O'Hara....Mickey Devlin Crabbe
Fred Willard....Mike LaFontaine Parker
Posey....Sissy Knox
Harry Shearer....Mark Shubb

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EntertainmentMoviesChristopher GuestEugene LevyCatherine O'HaraTelevisionHarry Shearer
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