The small town is such an intoxicating setting for a filmmaker that it’s surprising there are not hundreds of thousands of films about small towns and their residents. Indeed, while most of the locals of these small towns merely see a humble place full of their friends and neighbors, an outsider’s view always seems to find the offbeat tics (both humorous and dark) to any tiny town they stumble into. Effectively weaponizing the charms and weirdness found in any small town, Christopher Guest’s WAITING FOR GUFFMAN makes for a nice little ditty of a mockumentary.
The small town at the center of Guest’s film is Blaine, Missouri, the self-proclaimed stool capital of the world (and also, according to the town historian (Don Lake) the location of the ACTUAL first UFO sighting and landing). As one can tell, Blaine has a lot going for it so it only makes sense that the town’s planned celebration for its sesquicentennial (or its 150th anniversary as us city folks are likely to call it) has big aspirations. To help pay tribute to the town, the local council enlists the talents of former Off-Off-Off-Off-Off-Broadway theater director, Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest) to direct the anticipated theater production of “Red, White, and Blaine”. St. Clair, never one to turn down the beautiful arts of the stage, takes the job and runs with it bringing together a rag-tag group of locals composed of the town’s veteran theater rats (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), the local comedy king/dentist (Eugene Levy), and an young Dairy Queen employee (Parker Posey) who aspires to make it big time. As this group goes through the trials and tribulations of local theater, the news that a dignified member of the New York Broadway scene (the eponymous Mr. Guffman) will attend the performance only pushes St. Clair and his cast to put on the best show in Blaine’s history.
In his first dive into the sub-genre he helped popularize and shape, Christopher Guest, as the film’s center star and director crafts an all around pleasant mockumentary. As with most of his other works that I’ve viewed (BEST IN SHOW, MASCOTS), Guest always manages to approach his cartoonish characters with an admirable degree of respect giving the film an almost naturalistic feel, despite its dips into sketch-comedy sequences. Even as he displays a scene of the always game Levy, Willard and O’Hara in a heated discussion regarding penis shrinking, the filmmaker always makes these scenes feel natural and true to their characters. Indeed, as I’ve come to notice amongst his films, what you get out of his films depends on how much you find his chosen subjects funny and as its worked for me, most of his characters are chuckle-worthy but never laugh out loud. In regards to the small town kooks of Blaine, it’s more of the same but just a tad funnier compared to the likes of dog show judges and competing mascots.
Even as the comedy never achieves legit snortle levels of enjoyment, one can’t deny the energy and commitment found within the ensemble cast who play their roles to perfection. From Willard’s passive-aggressively dickish Ron to Bob Balaban’s constantly put upon music director, WAITING FOR GUFFMAN gives each character a comedic gem with the standouts being Guest’s own St. Clair, a borderline offensive caricature turned into a lovable aspiring doofus and Levy’s clueless dentist. While seeing these characters figure out the best way to put on a show wrings some laughs, the most enjoyable aspects of the film are found in its musical related misadventures as Guest (and co-writer Levy) commit fully to visualizing the humorously amateur stage production. In these moments, as Guest and his co-stars sing about everything from the creation of stools to dancing with an an alien from Mars, WAITING FOR GUFFMAN fulfills its comedic depiction of straight-faced small town weirdness.
Overall, as the film wraps up with a near bittersweet conclusion that humanizes its subjects, WAITING FOR GUFFMAN gets oh so close to becoming more than a small comedy film about small towns and more about the dreams of a better life for its small time cast. Even if it doesn’t achieve that, Guest and co. have a solid little film on their hands that will definitely keep one entertained throughout its lithe runtime thanks to its band of lovable characters and their comedic showings on the big small stage of Blaine, Missouri.