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A Mighty Wind   B+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Christopher Guest
Writers: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy
Cast: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Bob Balaban, Parker Posey, Ed Begley Jr.

Review by Rob Vaux

The ever-so-slightly overrated canon of Christopher Guest -- Waiting For Guffman, Best in Show, and now A Mighty Wind -- unfolds multiple variations of the same basic story. His satirical eye focuses on the weird little subcultures that crop up around us, using their individual foibles to poke fun at larger human frailties. He employs an identical setup every time -- a mock documentary covering a supposedly important event -- along with a regular group of actors who clearly love working together. His films are always funny and A Mighty Wind ultimately has an honored place among them. Yet this, his third go 'round since the seminal This Is Spinal Tap (in which he starred), begins to show the limits of his chosen technique.

Guest's topic this time is folk music, a movement that bestrode the Earth like a colossus in the '60s, but has now been reduced to a few clans of diehard enthusiasts. A Mighty Wind mines the bulk of its humor from the vast differences that time has wrought, contrasting the promise of yesterday with the tattered reality of today. When folk record magnate Irving Steinbloom passes away, his son (Bob Balaban) organizes a reunion concert of his three most famous acts: The Folksmen (Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Guest himself) a tradition-based trio whose hair has done horrible things since their heyday; the New Main Street Singers, psychotically perky corporate sellouts with the look of cornered dogs in their eyes; and Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), a world-famous duet whose long ago breakup left lingering mental scars on them both.

Guest trundles each group out with his usual semi-improvisational style, following their trials and tribulations leading up to the big concert. His comedy depends largely on the actors, who must sell the ridiculous sides of their characters without a trace of irony of self-awareness. His ensemble knows the routine well, and A Mighty Wind plays beautifully to their strengths, highlighting resentments, insecurities, and of course the faux-real songs which are just accurate enough to skewer the genre's creakier traditions. Fred Willard has traditionally stolen the show in these films -- and his obtuse band manager here is hysterical -- but A Mighty Wind has room for a few other highlights as well. Levy (working beautifully with O'Hara) delivers his funniest performance since American Pie, revealing Mitch as a borderline head case with a tenuous grasp on reality; and Shearer (still playing the bass) has the film's two best moments, neither of which I dare reveal here. As the anchor for the Folksmen, his silly Amish beard and rumbling voice hit a perfect comic chord, and whenever A Mighty Wind starts to sag, you need only look over at his subtle facial expressions to bring a smile to your face.

Indeed, the only distressing thing about the film is that it does sag in points. While most of the comic threads develop into priceless payoffs, a few of them just don't go anywhere, showing cracks in the unscripted structure. There aren't many dead spots -- the jokes are rapid enough to keep you laughing throughout -- but every now and then, you can see A Mighty Wind straining against the boundaries of its format. The pacing is quite predictable, following the same resolute path as Guest's earlier films. Indeed, so often does it remind us of those other pieces (and how none of them have quite matched the gold standard set by Spinal Tap) that you begin to wonder how many more times this will work.

But, like its predecessors, A Mighty Wind overcomes its minor flaws by the unique idiosyncrasies of its subject. Some have accused it of being too gentle to folk music -- saying that Guest has too much affection here to really cut loose -- but I disagree. Folk music claimed to have changed the world, to have stood at the forefront of a great renaissance in thought and idealism. A Mighty Wind's best gags quietly deflate that notion, revealing the hollowness and hypocrisy that devoured its potential. The aging bands and their hangers-on have no idea how much they've lost or what a joke they've become. The movement looms larger in their minds than anyone else's, like Best In Show's dog breeders or Guffman's community theater types, and Guest knows exactly how to hoist them on their own petard. If this is the way he chooses to do it, then any complaints we can level are minor ones at best. He may be a one-trick pony, but it's still a damn fine trick.

Review published 04.21.2003.

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