A few months ago, GQ ran a health-focused profile of Bill Clinton. The former president was but a sliver of his former self, the color drained from his lips and his southern grit and charm absent from his defenses of liberal politics. Quietly devastating, the profile painted a portrait of greatness (scandals aside, President Clinton was indisputably a phenomenal politician) in decline.
Similar words could be written about Christopher Guest, the king of mockumentaries. A starring role in Rob Reiner’s “This Is Spinal Tap,” about a British hard rock band in decline, led to a brief stint on “Saturday Night Live “and then a string of phenomenal improvisational mockumentaries, “Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind” and “For Your Consideration.” These films, planned but unscripted, brilliantly pick apart inane, niche worlds ripe for comedic emasculation: Small-town community theater? Dog shows? Folk music? Oscars fanaticism? Nothing is off limits for Guest and his repertory company of improvisational actors, who inhabit quirky roles with a deftness that defies human comprehension.
Guest, who would star in his films alongside the brilliant likes of Jane Lynch (“Talladega Nights”), Catherine O’Hara (“Home Alone”), Eugene Levy (“Finding Dory”) and so many others, showed just as much brilliance in front of the camera as behind it. But in “Mascots,” his return to filmmaking after a ten-year hiatus (albeit interrupted by a TV show, “Family Tree,” and a wonderful segment at the 2012 Oscars), Guest is only a remnant of his former self, color faded from his face like the former president. Reserving himself to a small role, and lacking O’Hara and Levy, his two greatest stars, Guest’s latest project resembles more an off-kilter impression of himself than a further addition to his impressive oeuvre.
Perhaps that’s because the subject of the film — a mascot competition — feels like a rehash of “Best in Show,” which focused on a dog show competition. Quirky characters from around the world, dedicated to a pointless competitive activity, are introduced one by one and descend on the host city, mix and mingle and then compete (with a number of setbacks) until a winner is named. But it’s not just the context that feels overly familiar; so many of the specific events and character types that feature in “Best in Show” return in “Mascots,” which renders the film utterly predictable, especially if one has seen “Best in Show” countless times like me. Even the opening scene — a couple in the competition bickering with each other in a Shakespearean depiction of ill fate — is directly copied. It’s unfortunate because Guest’s films revel in their imagination and creativity. Predictability ought to be an anathema, rather than a defining feature of a Guest film.
Perhaps it’s also the strong sense of removal the film can’t help but evoke. Netflix is a great platform for experimentation, but its penchant for expressive color palettes (think the bright pinks and yellows in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” or the intensely faded colors in “House of Cards”) gives “Mascots” a sheen of artifice that ruins its lived-in world. Mascotery, as the characters call it, isn’t nearly present enough as a competitive field in pop culture for us to really laugh. Dogs aren’t particularly silly in and of themselves, but dog shows are rather ludicrous. The Oscars aren’t inherently ripe for humor, but the pageantry surrounding the desire to be nominated for one is. I had thought that mascot competitions were an invention of Guest (Google corrected me — they are in fact real), but mascots themselves are a rather funny concept. The added layer of a competition seemed to be overkill.
That’s not to say the film isn’t worth watching. Anytime Guest’s regulars are assembled on screen, hilarity ensues. I lost it when Jennifer Coolidge (“Legally Blonde”) and Bob Balaban (“Moonrise Kingdom”) appeared as a wealthy, disinterested couple. Parker Posey (“Dazed and Confused”) and Ed Begley Jr. (“St. Elsewhere”) are funny as ever. Fred Willard’s (“Anchorman”) appearance and troublingly funny aloofness on any screen is cause for celebration. And while Guest’s younger generation of new collaborators don’t quite rise to their predecessors’ level, they still add blissfully funny moments.
“Mascots” isn’t so much a failure as it is a disappointment. Each laugh amplified the silences in between, of which there were far too many, when the awkwardness between characters simply proved too artificial, too phony or too familiar. Guest’s model is perhaps unsustainable — luck no doubt plays a role in encountering terrains well suited for comedic deep dives — but I never expected Guest’s fortune to run out.