The biggest problem Christopher Guest’s Mascots suffers from is that it is only nominally a new movie.
Guest’s films followed the same format for a while — beginning of course with the Rob Reiner-directed, wig-acted This Is Spinal Tap, then smoothly Sureflo-ing into Guests’ golden trifecta of Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. But though he became known for these three mockumentaries that followed a similar structure — centering on an ensemble cast representing different reaches of a subculture who eventually come together for a specific event — he followed these films with two projects that diverged from form. For Your Consideration, though it focused on an ensemble of characters working on a film, was not a mockumentary, and Guest’s canceled HBO series, Family Tree, was a much looser, episodic type of mockumentary.
But his newest film, Mascots, which was just released solely on Netflix last weekend, returns to the exact — and really, exact — format of his earlier works. It is a Christopher Guest movie that seems like a particularly Netflix-branded Christopher Guest movie — in that it’s merely there to stoke enthusiasm via reminiscence. It’s like Stranger Things is to Spielberg — but unfortunately, with the same director. This is Christopher Guest now remaking Christopher Guest.
This is not to say that, with its talented cast (including Parker Posey as a conceptual dance-loving armadillo mascot, Jennifer Coolidge — who manages to make the small role of Bob Balaban’s character’s escort-turned-wife brilliantly funny — Jane Lynch as a former moose mascot who wrote the memoir “Amoosing Grace: A Mascot’s Journey to God and Success in Real Estate“) wearing absurd costumes, the movie isn’t at times very, very funny. In one scene, Parker Posey’s character’s history having mascotted for a team that once, a century ago, bore a racist name — the Leaping Squaws — comes to light, and she’s brought in front of a group of varyingly clueless white judges who seek to weigh just how offensive that is. In this scene, everyone is hilariously ignorant of or over-the-top outraged in their responses to a century-old offense, and Jane Lynch’s character has the most fantastic punchline, flatly stating, “I’m more offended by the word ‘leaping’ — it’s blatantly homophobic.”
But these individual jokes exist within a format that once felt singular and human — arising from the flatulent circus of of 90s mainstream comedy as a beacon of dryness, subtlety, and even heart — and now feels almost algorithmic in its scrambling of the same components. Context is everything.
Like Guffman, Show, and Wind, Mascots begins with a series of introductory interviews, showing us each of the players in their natural habitats, before they’re uprooted and brought to whatever they consider the “big city.” Guests’ films have been critiqued for punching down — letting urbanites chuckle at American provincialisms. But such critiques are rightly rebutted with assertions that his films are goodhearted and that they’re so specific that they celebrate their characters’ oddities and make for hilarious comedy.
Yet even if the Mascots characters are just as specific Guests’ have ever been — even if we learn the same amount about them (for instance, that one mascot couple hates each other, that another mascot is part of a mascot dynasty and therefore has daddy issues, that another mascot has a supportive half-sister with an injury that prevents her from being a mascot) — it’s hard to care, because they now just seem like a batch of people manufactured to perform the same services as before: to be rambling and reveal odd intimacies in a series of interviews in their homes, then to take a trip elsewhere and have mild revelations and crises while out of their element, and then ultimately to perform a routine that’ll make them proud while making moviegoing audiences laugh at them, before winning or not winning a prize, and then appearing in a “X amount of time later” epilogue.
These films have never hinged on plot, but if you’re familiar with the formula of Best in Show — and specifically Gerry and Cookie Fleck, the particular characters who imbue that film with an emotional narrative, as well as how one of them has a literal case of “two left feet” that hinders them from parading their terrier in dog shows — you might be able to guess at the cursory emotional surprise embedded in Mascots. The prize-awarding scene is in fact so reminiscent of Best in Show, that what ought to be a climactic moment (given the structure around the competition) feels rushed — did any of these characters really merit the audience’s emotional investment in the naming of a prize?
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Christopher Guest said of the film — after he’d been asked a strangely philosophical question about the nature of being a mascot:
I don’t want to overanalyze this. I don’t want to … this movie isn’t a dissertation on some psychoanalytic premise about why people do this. I’m hoping it’s a comedy. When I made it, it was intended to be funny, especially about the people when they’re out of costume, obviously.
While psychoanalysis certainly isn’t required, there’s something to be said for simple character analysis — for comedy that comes from the inside out. Otherwise the films just end up feeling like particular high-budget improv exercises, and Guest relies more heavily on sight-gags here than ever. Guests’ characters all have backstories, and Guest plots out his films before he shoots them. Yet with all of the absurd costumery of the mascots, it can feel like they’re just gilding absences with funny outfits.
Maybe it should have been assumed: a Netflix-pickup of a director with cult status would presumably (given the model they’ve created from shows like Fuller House and the sure-to-be-a-hit Gilmore Girls… or Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp… or even, again, the admittedly very wonderful Stranger Things) entail that director doing exactly what they were known and loved for way-back-when. In 2016, the year 2000, when Best in Show was released, is removed enough to fit into the realm of nostalgia marketability. Unlike any of his other films, this one even features a beloved character disinterred from one of his older movies (“like some kind of fan service, which I guess can exist in this universe too,” Flavorwire’s own Jason Bailey said in his Toronto International Film Festival review of the film). Corky St. Clair, Waiting for Guffman’s self-aggrandizing community theater director, returns as a mascot coach.
It’s almost as though this decision were made to spark a listicle of the 10 Quirkest and Corkiest Moments. The extent to which Netflix was involved isn’t exactly transparent, but a lot of the movie seems like a version of Christopher Guest that’s hyper-aware of the media climate and fandom its catering to. Rather than make a good new movie or attempting to break ground, it decided to help people retreat further into their affection for their past tastes.