Actor-filmmaker Christopher Guest built up plenty of goodwill over the years as the purveyor of such clever mockumentaries as "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind," not to mention as the co-writer and co-star of the beloved rock 'n' roll spoof "This Is Spinal Tap." It's a good thing, because producer-distributor Netflix (in a new partnership with the iPic luxury theater chain) will definitely need to draw on that past success to corral an audience for Guest's latest satire, the underperforming "Mascots."
The film takes place as a group of sports mascots from across the map gather and prepare for the World Mascot Assn. Championships in Anaheim. As per the Guest method, they're a clueless if driven, self-serious bunch of nerds and oddballs who encounter their share of tempest-in-a-teapot obstacles en route to "the big show."
It's been a decade since Guest made his last feature comedy, the Oscar-season sendup "For Your Consideration," and that lag shows in his new film, which not only seems overly familiar and only modestly inspired but also stuck in a bit of a time warp.
Sure, one of the driving in-jokes of Guest's work has involved the insular, tunnel-visioned nature of the fields and characters he lampoons. But especially given the sports-oriented arena in the spotlight here, there's a surprising lack of real-world diversity that could have added much to the proceedings — comedic and otherwise. (Ironically, the film's East Indian mascots are only seen covered by costumes.)
On the plus side, co-writer and director Guest brings back many of his nimble "stock company" of players including Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Michael Hitchcock and Ed Begley Jr., in larger roles and such amusing folks as Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge and even Guest himself (as the seriously dated Corky St. Clair from "Guffman") in more fleeting parts.
There are also several cast members new to Guest movies: Zach Woods, Sarah Baker, Susan Yeagley, Tom Bennett and others, who work hard to enliven the meager plot line and wanting milieu. (Some may find team mascots on par with clowns and mimes in the "annoying" category.)
The contestants include Cindi and Laci Babineaux (Posey, Yeagley), Southern half-sisters with an armadillo routine; Owen Golly Jr. (Bennett) a.k.a. Sid the Hedgehog, an eager Brit with a supportive wife (Kerry Godliman) and hyper-vigilant dad (co-writer Jim Piddock); embattled marrieds Mike and Mindy Murray (Woods, Baker); an Irish-Canadian wild man known as the Fist (Chris O'Dowd of Guest's HBO creation "Family Tree"), and needy Phil Mayhew (Christopher Moynihan), whose Jack the Plumber act features a dancing turd.
The mascots all get their moments to shine for the judges (Hitchcock, Lynch, Begley and Don Lake) and spectators and these often goofy performances are among the film's livelier moments. There's fun costuming as well.
Unfortunately, this improvised film (Guest's actors work off a detailed outline) contains the occasional titter but few guffaws. In fact, at times, the comedy can feel desperate, especially when relying on such references as "Rhea Perlman Middle School" or a hotel's "Slim Pickens suite" for laughs.
In addition, the faux documentary elements largely get lost in the shuffle, so when it's time for the requisite where-are-they-now epilogue interviews they feel tacked on.
Hopefully, it won't be 10 more years until Guest tries his hand at another movie satire — as long as it beats this one.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Playing: iPic Theaters, Westwood; also on Netflix