WAITING FOR GUFFMAN (1996)
(to purchase on Amazon.com click the title above)
Directed by Christopher Guest
Starring Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, and Parker Posey
In a nutshell: The citizens of Blaine, Missouri, led by local drama teacher and previous Broadway “star” Corky St. Clair, put on a musical production to celebrate the city’s 150th anniversary in this brilliant comedy that is as warm and loving as it is uproarious.
WAITING FOR GUFFMAN is, point blank, my favorite comedy film of all time, followed by TOOTSIE and THE NAKED GUN. The film has garnered a somewhat small but fierce and loyal cult following, which happens to include actor Tim Robbins and my girlfriend Meryl Streep, who has named GUFFMAN her favorite movie. And just to make it clear from the get-go, I fell in love with this film before I found out that Streep loved it, too – it’s just one of the many examples of how simpatico we are!
WAITING FOR GUFFMAN is one in a series of films Christopher Guest made which are referred to as mockumentaries. Basically what this means is that the actors are given an outline of their characters and the basic plot of the movie, but they have to make up their own dialogue, and the film itself is shot in the style of a documentary with interviews of the characters interwoven within the flow of the movie. It’s a real high-wire act, totally dependent on having the right actors with the ability to improvise and create good chemistry with one another. It could have been a disaster; instead it’s nirvana!
Comedy is arguably the most divisive of art forms. There is no rhyme or reason or earthly explanation why something strikes one person as funny and someone else as not funny. I think a sense of humor is like a fingerprint or a snowflake – there are no two senses of humor exactly alike. For the life of me, I can’t understand the enjoyment of many of these comedies nowadays that are mean-spirited and filled with horrible language and bodily functions and the increasingly popular gross-out factor. I missed the portion of the playbook that said disgust is synonymous with funny. Yet obviously many people find them riotous, as they score big-time at the box office.
WAITING FOR GUFFMAN is set in the small rural town of Blaine, Missouri, which is preparing a huge celebration honoring its 150th anniversary (or its sesquicentennial anniversary for all you smart math geniuses out there). As part of the celebration, local drama teacher Corky St. Clair, a former Broadway actor and director who has relocated to the midwest, is in charge of putting on a huge musical production called “Red, White, and Blaine”. After a hilarious series of auditions, the cast comes together, including local travel agents Ron and Sheila Albertson, Dairy Queen employee Libby Mae Brown, and dentist Allan Pearl.
As rehearsals ensue, Corky and Company are convinced they have the next WICKED or LES MISERABLES on their hands, so Corky writes the Oppenheimer Organization in New York to make them aware of “Red, White, and Blaine”. They in turn agree to send representative Mort Guffman (hence the title) to view this one-time performance to evaluate if it’s indeed worthy of the Great White Way. And everyone naturally thinks they’ll be the next stars of Broadway!
One of the many beauties of this film is how endearing each and every one of these characters is. Lesser filmmakers and actors would have made them a source of ridicule and mockery; Guest and company paint them with love and compassion and truth, even during the craziest and most zany moments of the film. These people legitimately believe they are creating a musical masterpiece, even when they’re singing songs about stools and alien invasions. It’s the sincerity with which they undertake this endeavor that makes the film crazy funny and, surprisingly, very touching.
The basic premise of WAITING FOR GUFFMAN is simple and straightforward. The miracle of this movie comes in the moments and looks and gestures and lines deliveries that most people wouldn’t think twice about but are in actuality sheer perfection. In addition to director Guest, who stars as the unforgettable Corky St. Clair in one of the great comic performances ever, we are fortunate to spend time with actors such as Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, and the mind-blowingly brilliant Catherine O’Hara, among others. Each character is given their moment to shine, their time in the spotlight, and in the scenes when they all come together, it’s cinematic bliss of the highest order.
It’s not an exaggeration to tell you that I literally smile non-stop throughout this entire movie and watching it fills me with this warm glow that I don’t think any other movie has ever done. It is 83 minutes of pure delight, and I could spend hours and hours dissecting every scene and sharing with you the joy of every perfect moment. For anyone who has appeared in a school play or a Christmas musical or has even had an occasional daydream of becoming a performer, this movie will not only tickle your funny bone but warm your heart.
Rating: ***** out of *****