Contrary to popular belief, Christopher Guest did not invent the “mockumentary.” His classic claim to fame, This Is Spinal Tap, came about in 1984; the Eric Idle-Neil Innes The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash first aired in 1978. Math isn’t my strong suit, but that appears to me to be six years earlier.
And, frankly, while All You Need Is Cash suffers the stigma of being a TV film, its lovingly vicious parody of the Beatles is still the yardstick by which I judge comedic mock documentaries — and by that yardstick, I can’t say that A Mighty Wind quite measures up.
Actually, Wind more resembles a TV film than it doesn’t, if only by virtue of its cast, nearly all of whom are from — at least originally — television. When Paul Benedict (of The Jeffersons fame) shows up for one shot as a music historian, the feeling that you’re watching a TV film is pretty much complete.
It’s not that A Mighty Wind isn’t funny. It is. But it’s also amazingly insubstantial. Five minutes after it’s over, it begins to evaporate. And it doesn’t help that Wind breaks (oh, come on, you couldn’t have resisted either) no new ground. It’s Christopher Guest coasting on his carefully developed formula — which is entertaining enough, but by now totally devoid of surprise. There is scarcely one gag in the entire film that you can’t see coming.
A Mighty Wind works on the basis of fulfilled expectations, but by the end of its 92 minutes, it starts to wear thin. Had it gone on longer, it would have worn out its welcome altogether.
The idea is delightfully simple: Beloved folk-music producer Irving Steinbloom has died and his son, Jonathan (Bob Balaban), decides to pull together a memorial concert, consisting of his father’s biggest acts — the Folksmen, the New Main Street Singers, and Mitch and Mickey. Not surprisingly, each of these acts has fallen on hard times owing to the death of the folk-music craze of the 1960s, and to various personal problems.
The most completely realized satire lies in the case of the New Main Street Singers — presented as a largely reformed group headed up by the improbably named Terry Bohner (John Michael Higgins) and his ex-porn-star wife, Laurie (Jane Lynch). Reduced to performing at an amusement park in Tallahassee, Fla., the New Main Street Singers seem far more ludicrous than the other acts. With their plastic, frozen smiles, dubious background, control-freak attitudes and ditsy New Age mysticism, the Bohners don’t enjoy the marginal sympathy the film evidences for the other acts; Guest’s take on them is a lot more vicious than the bead he draws on the other performers. Then again, how it would be possible to work up much sympathy for these New Christy Minstrels is another matter (one almost as perplexing as how such would be possible for the genuine article!).
Part of the problem with A Mighty Wind is that it’s otherwise too sympathetic. This is especially true of Mitch (Eugene Levy) and Mickey (Catherine O’Hara). Levy is funny enough as Mitch (a man so burnt out that he has no idea what hotel he checked into), but his is essentially a one-joke character, and Guest asks too much in expecting the viewer to work up much feeling for him. Yet, by the end, he even tries to work some marginal drama out of the question of whether or not the befuddled Mitch will show up for his performance. (Unfortunately, this little nod to Ringo in A Hard Day’s Night isn’t blessed with anything so wry as George Harrison suggesting, “Maybe if you get the juggler on with a couple more clubs, that’d eat up a bit of time.”)
When the film works, it does so mostly by virtue of its parade of quirky characters — Bob Balaban as the impossibly anal Jonathan Steinbloom; Ed Begley Jr. as Public Broadcasting Network Producer Lars Olfen (despite his name, his every sentence is peppered with injections of Yiddish); Deborah Theaker as the hyper-emotional Naomi Steinbloom; etc. This bunch is just off-center enough to be constantly entertaining, if never especially believable.
The film climaxes, of course, with the concert; and while this was inevitable, it never really works as satire, because it’s just too much like the real thing. The jokes — when they come — are mild, telegraphed and too delayed. (It gets old waiting and waiting for a payoff you know is coming.) A Mighty Wind also raises a question — as the audience in the film claps and sways and even makes assorted audience-participation barnyard noises on cue — as to whether it isn’t the viewer who is being mocked even more than the staid institution of folk music.
It’s not a bad movie. It’s sometimes funny and entertaining, though the best you can finally say about it is that A Mighty Wind doesn’t blow. And somehow that’s just not enough.