Christopher Guest’s Mascots introduces us to plucky weirdos driven to get in big foam costumes and wiggle around to delight and excite a crowd. There’s a husband/wife team (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker) who play a turtle and an octopus for a low-rent baseball team, a chipper Brit hedgehog for a soccer team (Tom Bennett), a loopy arts’ college armadillo (Parker Posey), a football teams’ oversized plumber (Christopher Moynihan), and a grouchy Irishman (Chris O’Dowd) who dresses as a giant fist for hockey games. They’re all driven to find success, powering forward with boundless positivity and love of the game in the pursuit of a silly dream: the grand prize at an annual mascot convention. If this sounds like it’s falling into Guest’s formula, you’re correct. It’s another of his mockumentaries involving an affectionately teased subculture. But unlike his great earlier comedies and their targets, Waiting for Guffman’s community theater, Best in Show’s dog competition, and A Might Wind’s folk music revival, Mascots lacks crucial specificity. Trying too hard to whip up eccentricities, it’s a flat, dull attempt at resuscitating a form that’s past its sell-by date.
Superficially, Mascots has everything that made earlier Christopher Guest movies great. It has the subculture. It has the large ensemble of funny people, including many of the performers who populated Guest’s earlier works and some welcome additions. (Present and accounted for are Jennifer Coolidge, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley, Jr., and others.) It has the bright, flat mockumentary style allowing for the humor to loosely arrive at tossed-off lines. It’s has the casually ridiculous spoken with only a hint of bemusement and straight-faced silliness unfolding for an unemphatic camera. It’s agreeable. But, wow, is it not funny. Maybe it rises to the level of gently amusing from time to time, and the whole picture never quite tanks into something totally contemptible, but that’s certainly a far cry from the best Guest can do. This is his first movie in a decade, and the problem is partly what happened to the comedy landscape while he was away.
Firstly, the mainstream mockumentary style was more refreshing and novel when he took the form from the classic This is Spinal Tap, in which he co-starred, and applied it to his own silly trilogy. With Guffman and the rest, there was the spark of invention in seeing big, funny ensembles improvise their way to hilarious, endlessly quotable dialogue in scenes assembled with verite deadpan and plot pushed along by interviews with the characters. Now, after two versions of The Office, Parks & Rec, Modern Family, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and so on and so on, the style has been wrung out. Add to it Mascot’s half-heartedness with which it deploys the gimmick – with many scenes including cuts to impossible camera angles – and it just feels tired. Besides, at least those other mockumentaries were plausibly exaggerated looks at actual groups. The extrapolated and invented mascots and their rivalries and competitions here simply isn’t a culture with much connection to the real world. It’s not a parody of a real group of people; it’s simply goofing around based on a sliver of recognizable interest. (And if you think the plot is overfamiliar diminishing returns, wait’ll you see how Guest revives his memorable Corky St. Clair to flatlining results.)
Secondly, the improv style has also come to dominate the comedy film scene. From the Apatow productions – which expand their runtimes with long, loose scenes of characters cracking each other up – to every comedy that pauses its action for punchline roulettes in which the cast takes turns throwing out insults. (These have long stopped seeming like scenes and are more a matter of spitting a bunch of possible jokes and hoping one lands hard enough to excuse the rest. It’s coverage, not choices.) The shaggy scenes in which talented people find their way to a naturally funny bantering chemistry is no longer unfamiliar territory. And when it’s handled so carelessly as it is with Mascots it just feels sad. As a big fan of his earlier work, seeing Guest’s formula returning in such a diminished state is dispiriting. Sure, there are fleeting moments of good humor – like a hotel with a “John Wayne suite” downgrading a disappointed guest to the “Slim Pickens” – but there’s otherwise a desperation in scenes devoid of interest and missing laughs. I smiled a few times, chuckled a few more, but was otherwise thoroughly bummed out by how pale an echo of old favorites it is. Compared to other modern comedies, at least it’s not unendurable or ugly. It’s watchable. But the dead air is deafening.