Christopher Guest movies are endearing because they’re about people who are this close to stardom, but there’s a narrow and deep chasm between them and their dreams. Even Spinal Tap (which of course was not directed by Guest, but Rob Reiner, but still part of the mockumentary family) touches on this theme. We, as an audience, buy into these films to the extent that we are rooting for the characters to succeed, even as they inevitably fall into the chasm, but in the end scrape up the remaining crumbs of victory and call themselves winners.
Guest’s most recent film, For Your Consideration, was probably his least effective, because the central characters lacked much of the small-town appeal of the characters in, for example, Waiting for Guffman, although they did have the desperation for success in spades. For Your Consideration also jettisoned the “mockumentary” format, presenting the characters in a continuous improvised dramatic scenario. It still had great moments (Fred Willard and Jane Lynch are always wonderful), but it was ultimately an experiment that didn’t quite work. Mascots, his new film released on Netflix, returns to familiar ground in more ways than one.
Mascots, in its format, is classic Christopher Guest. The structure is essentially identical to Best in Show, with characters from all over the world bringing their insane dreams of stardom to a small-time annual competition with delusions of grandeur. One of the best jokes, in fact, is the ceremony that surrounds the “World Mascot Association”’s award show, with a stentorian announcer (Harry Shearer, in a voice cameo) intoning grave phrases while lasers flash and the smoke machine starts up to an audience of about 130 people, not even filling the seats of the modest auditorium. The contestants, of course, take the competition deadly seriously, there are veteran members of the community with what they regard as war stories (Jane Lynch’s character is selling her autobiography, based around the time she injured herself doing the splits) and the show is surrounded by small-time showbiz wannabes. (John Michael Higgins plays a producer for the “Gluten-Free Network”, honoured by the opportunity to have exclusive coverage of the event, for example.) There’s backstage intrigue, costume problems, last-minute ringers, and an oddly talented contestant who disappears just before the show, like in A Mighty Wind. In other words, Mascots sits right in the comfortable middle of the Christopher Guest genre, hitting all the marks we’ve come to expect.
Once one accepts the absolute lack of risk in this film, there’s much to enjoy. The returning cast (most of the mainstays are here, except Michael McKean, who’s busy on Better Call Saul) is noticeably older in high-def, but still great. Ed Begley, Jr. is as understated and funny as he’s ever been as a veteran judge, Fred Willard is an elderly and completely ineffective coach, Don Lake plays the deeply concerned contest sponsor, and Guest himself hilarious re-creates his Corky St. Clair character from Waiting for Guffman, now a mascot choreographer to the hopeful. But it’s Parker Posey who really steals the show, playing Cindi (with an “I”) Baineaux, a fading southern “belle” dancer who plays her local College’s “Armadillo” mascot with equal parts sincerity, desperation and tragedy. Posey, from the first frame, is so committed to this role, and touches on so many different dramatic notes through the course of the film, that it’s a performance that could even get Oscar recognition. (There’s a For Your Consideration moment for you, but it’s not hyperbole — she’s that good.) Right alongside her is Susan Yeagley (from Parks and Recreation) as her half sister Laci (with an “I”), if anything more committed to playing the sort of woman that thinks if they constantly chew gum, put on enough makeup and not discuss their 25-year-old children (and grandchildren), no one will notice that they’re 40. In the final competition sequence, where all the contestants strut their stuff, it’s the performance developed by Posey, coached by Guest, that stops the show. It must be seen to be believed.
In the end, Mascots feels like a great version of a song we’ve heard and loved before. Guest and company take a well-earned victory stroll through the genre they helped to invent. For those who haven’t seen a Guest film before, it’s a good introduction, and for longtime fans, it’s a warm bath. At this point, Guest doesn’t really have to push his genre forward, and clearly commits here to hitting the familiar beats, including bringing characters back from other films. It’s a welcome return to form after For Your Consideration, and Parker Posey’s performance is one for the ages.