Ever since Christopher Guest regaled us with the beauty of “turning it up to 11,” as rocker Nigel Tufnel in This is Spinal Tap, many among us have craved that unique flavor and understated zing of the Guest-ian comic touch. It’s a dry mode of comedy, verging on but never giving completely into absurdity or to delivering obvious punch-line moments. The consistent character of his work — and that of his keenly equipped ensemble cast —adds up to a distinctive and coherent world unto itself in comedic filmmaking, often leaving us wanting more.
Thankfully, Guest (and Netflix, which funded the project) has heard our pleas and filled our hunger with the delectable and lovably oddball Mascots, his first film in a decade, available now on Netflix. Guest craves finding the right social milieu or quirky subculture to live in for a project, whether it’s clueless rockers in Spinal Tap, provincial theater in Waiting for Guffman, or dog show dynamics in Best in Show.
In Mascots, he takes a trip to another offshoot from normality, unmasking the secret world of “mascottery” — a profession requiring enthusiasm, showbiz instincts, and that seeming enemy of celebrity: anonymity. Guest takes advantage of the outrageously varied menagerie of costumes, skits, and real-life personalities in the field to keep the film fresh. Plot-wise, all roads lead to Anaheim, where our masked heroes are competing in the World Mascot Association championship, hoping to win “the Golden Fluffy Award” and possibly a coveted spot on the Gluten Free Channel (run by Upton French, who previously had the Varicose Vein Channel).
Ah, yes, to be back in the land of the well-made, slightly lunatic mockumentary (Guest reportedly hates the term “mockumentary,” preferring the less snarky “faux documentary,” but Philip Glass claimed to hate “minimalism” yet has gone to the bank on its marketing power). Seeing these actors, deft in their improvisational skills, back in action on-screen again — as individuals and ensemble — is a thrill unto itself, akin to revisiting an eccentric, perhaps half-crazed, branch on one’s family tree for the holidays. There’s Parker Posey as Cindi Babineaux, doing her mock-modern dance in a mask (allowing her to switch out with sister Laci). There’s Ed Begley Jr. as A.J. Blumquist, who admits he’s “phallically-challenged”: “I take comfort from Tom Thumb, Tiny Tim. …”
Guest himself makes a brief appearance — with bangs and a mop-top — as a mentor to the mascot stars floating in and out of the picture like an ethereal and pretentious sage (perhaps gently mocking Guest’s actual directorial task). New to the team and well-suited to the subtle comic task, Zach Woods (Silicon Valley) and Chris O’Dowd have sure instincts of what to put in and what to leave out — key skills in the Guest school of comedy. What can we say about Fred Willard, an enlightened misfit in the comedy cosmos since his days in Fernwood Tonight? He appears as a “mascot coach,” but in true Willard fashion, he seems less authoritative than a loon from a parallel planet. Various “Say what?” moments in the film sneak up on your senses without the old comic routines of setup and payoff, as when Jack the Plumber tries out his skit as a warm-up, in what turns out to be a school for the blind.
Just as one never quite knows where the structure leaves off and the improvisation begins, or where the realities of the culture in question are sacrificed at the altar of Guest-esque audacity, Mascots takes its rightful place in the fairly slender ranks of strong contenders in the mockumentery genre. We’ll never look at mascots in quite the same way again, now that their world has been Guest-dusted.