WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, 1996
Cast: Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, David Cross, Eugene Levy, Christopher Guest, Don Lake
To celebrate the town’s 150th anniversary, a local theatre director puts together a show starring locals. Pressure to deliver an excellent show is raised with the news that Broadway talent-scout Mort Guffman will be in attendance.
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‘Waiting For Guffman’ is co-written and directed by Christopher Guest; the brains behind the mighty ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, considered by most to be the greatest comedy ever made. ‘Spinal Tap’ propelled Guest to the status of comic idol so when Guest returned to the forefront of our silver screens with his new comedy effort, there was quite some anticipation - It didn’t disappoint.
This film follows the organising of a theatre production (to be premiered during the town of Blaine’s 150th anniversary) starring the local townsfolk; the star-struck Ron and Shelia Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), the uninspired and melancholic Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey) and the incredibly bittersweet Dr. Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy).
Christopher Guest stars as the director of ‘Red, White and Blaine’, the very …fabulous Corky St. Clair. There is added strain on the director and cast as news emerges that Mort Guffman, a Broadway talent scout, will be in attendance bringing with him the opportunity of taking the show to New York. We witness the auditions, rehearsals and premier of the show in this very, very funny 80 minute mock-documentary. All these elements culminate in a very well crafted and heart-sinking finale.
Christopher Guest along with Eugene Levy are credited as writers but the film is mostly improvised – a style expected with Guest films. Scenes are written with a mere outline of what the scene must entail, leaving acres of rooms for the actors to improvise dialogue, characteristics and relationships. Whilst not the first to master the genre, I would refer to Guest as the possible godfather of the western, improvised, mockumentary comedy and, due to the massive success of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, it has spawned many imitators. Whilst some are great - like Baron Cohen’s ‘Borat’, (2006, Dir. Charles) and TV’s ‘The Office’ (2001) – others are not so great and appear to be a crude prostitution of a comics’ “skill” at improv (TV’s ‘Summer Heights High’ (2007) instantly springs to mind). The delivery of the improvised material in ‘Waiting For Guffman’ is of the highest quality and is wonderfully subtle, whilst delivering the perfectly timed one-liners when demanded. The cast has been fantastically disciplined to deliver Guest’s style of humour.
Of course there are some similarities to ‘Spinal Tap’. As mentioned, the style in which the film is shot is done so to imitate a fly-on-the-wall documentary, it’s almost entirely improvised and Guest once against plays the lead. It’s not totally unlike ‘This is Spinal Tap’ (as the New York Daily News said, “Waiting For Guffman does for regional theatre what This Is Spinal Tap did for rock ‘n’ roll”).
But I do honestly believe that people will not confuse this film as a genuine documentary. When I hear of people initially thinking that they thought ‘Tap’ was a legitimate documentary by Marti DiBergi, I’d empathise. ‘Waiting For Guffman’ differs somewhat in a couple of ways – there is no interviewing figure for the audience to connect with. The characters speak to the camera and that is the style that the narrative is delivered. More importantly I think the biggest difference lies with the style of jokes. Whilst there are the delicate performances and character flaws, there are moments of absolute absurdity that lie with some of the jokes and a few of the scenes function as sketches; it’s almost as if the film is more focused on not trying to fool audiences this time around. I wonder if this was Guests intention …
Guest continues to carry on film this style of film-making and if you’re a fan of this style of cinema that I recommend you buy his filmography. They all stand out individually and, whilst ‘Guffman’ isn’t my absolute favourite of his – that award would go to ‘Best In Show’ – it is a fantastic comedy that has taken the uppermost care with it’s story and characters to deliver a very memorable comedy from one of the finest executors.