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September 15, 2016

Waiting for Guffman

by Franz Patrick


Waiting for Guffman (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★

The sesquicentennial anniversary of Blaine, the heart of Missouri, is coming up so the small town’s community is very excited about the special show to be performed at the end of the festival. This year, the mayor (Larry Miller) and his council appoint a high school drama teacher, Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest), along with a music teacher (Bob Balaban), in charge of the highly anticipated play that is expected to cover the town’s rich and idiosyncratic history.

Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, “Waiting for Guffman” is a highly energetic mockumentary that skewers community theater and yet it does not humiliate its subjects. Thus, the picture works a good-natured comedy. Not once is the audience made to feel as though the characters are mere caricatures. It points out the eccentricities of American small towns but it has a loving attitude toward them, too.

The picture is divided into chapters: the audition, the rehearsal, the night of the play, and three months after the performance. The casting by Parker Posey as a Dairy Queen employee, Levy as a dentist, Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard as a married couple who ironically run a travel agency even though they have not been outside the country, and Guest as a former New Yorker who hopes to make it to Broadway some day is near perfect because these are actors who know how to adapt with one another’s rhythm.

Notice that in scenes that come across as ad-libbed, and they are quite easy to spot, they do not break character when someone says or does something that is way out there. Instead, they all play along even though there unintended smiles are drawn across their faces. Small moments that would have been typically removed in the cutting room floor are left here. These moments are actually brilliant, arguably some of the funniest bits in the movie.

Its extemporaneous nature and approach is crucial to the success of the film because we get a sense of realism. The rehearsal scenes do not feel at all rehearsed or controlled. Rather, everyone is trying on a hat. The comedy comes in the form of the hats not quite fitting perfectly. We even grow increasingly worried as the night of the play approaches. I was surprised that I cared whether those who made it through the casting process would make a fool of themselves in front of their peers and neighbors. Some of them think they are more talented than they actually are.

The long-awaited performance is a joy to watch, from the colorful personalities that drive energetic numbers, ballads, and comedic exchanges to props that surprisingly work despite a few distractions—for instance, a figure being too prominent relative what we are supposed to be paying attention to. “Waiting for Guffman,” directed by Christopher Guest, is an entertaining spoof with a discerning eye but loving hands.

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