Waiting for Guffman (1997)
Unlike Godot, Guffman has not two, but five inepts eagerly awaiting his arrival. These folks know exactly what they want from their unseen benefactor, and they’re naively confident that they’ll get it: Guffman can make them stars.
Is Christopher Guest, writer and director of *Waiting For Guffman*, a modern-day Beckett? An argument can be made for that thesis, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the wonders that await in *Waiting For Guffman*. What *Godot* and *Guffman* have in common are comedy, absurdity, loss and delusion. One is typically staged in a theatre, the other set in an ersatz theatre (actually, a high school gym) -- but *Waiting For Guffman* is garishly tacky instead of austere, a celebration of the shameless quest for fame that feeds on dreams that cannot be quashed by something as insignificant as a phenomenal lack of talent. *Waiting For Guffman* is a wacky, hilariously deadpan mockumentary about a small-town America community theatre production. Like the equally brilliant pseudo-rockumentary *This Is Spinal Tap* [MIK UMLAT OVER THE N] (1984), which starred Guest as idiot guitarist Nigel Tufnel, *Waiting For Guffman* mines comic riches from tackiness, self-delusion, egotism and denial.
Blaine, Missouri, known as the “Stool Capital of the World” because of their footstool industry, is celebrating their sesquicentennial. Corky St. Clair (Guest), closet queen, is tapped to direct the town’s annual musical because he was once a professional actor in New York City. Blinded by the stars in their eyes and Corky’s big-city pedigree, the residents of Blaine don’t seem to notice that their artistic leader is at best a fifth-rate actor, and an even worse director. His original musical, *Red, White and Blaine* stars the town’s travel agents (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), a nerdy Jewish dentist (Eugene Levy), and a dim Dairy Queen dipper (Parker Posey), who dreams of stardom and/or inventing new ice cream sundaes. They’ve all got performing in their blood -- they just don’t have any talent. Bob Balaban is brilliant as the high school music teacher who, it turns out, really does have talent, although he also defers to Corky.
Dreaming of a triumphant return to Broadway, Corky invites New York theatrical producer Mort Guffman to the show -- like every other loser in *Red, White and Blaine*, Corky is convinced that Guffman will wave his wand and make them all stars. These characters are ridiculous in their egotism and self-delusion, but at the same time, there’s something terribly poignant and brave about all of them, about the faith in themselves that makes them both utterly blind to reality and immune to paralysing self-doubt and fear.
In a series of interviews with the townsfolk of Blaine, it becomes apparent the performers are not alone in their delusions of grandeur. Following the cast of *Red, White and Blaine* through rehearsals, emotional upheavals, hissy fits and creative differences, this faux-cinema verite film is caustically funny, and fabulously subtle and revealing. Everything is subtext with these characters, but subtext they can only hide from themselves because nobody in Blaine ever bothers to put two and two together -- Blaine is the denial capital of the world. Blainians never seem to notice that their theatre director, for instance, wears flashy clothes, speaks with a lisp *and* has a wife who has never been seen by anyone.
The marvelous conceit of *Waiting For Guffman*, that this is a real town and real people in a documentary film, works perfectly thanks to inspired performances. It is no small trick for a good actor to convincingly play a real person acting very badly, but Guest and company pull it off without a glitch. *Red, White and Blaine* (with music by Guest and fellow Tappers Harry Shearer and Michael McKean) is spectacularly tacky and inept, an appropriately oddball passion play for a town of superficially bland, but passionately hopeful loonies. The mixture of hilarious incompetence and self-importance, tempered by a touchingly groundless faith in themselves, makes these characters really memorable and vivid.
*Waiting For Guffman* pokes relentless fun at the foibles of Blaine’s all-Americans, but also exposes the emptiness behind the greasepaint fantasies. *Waiting For Guffman* is an inspired gem, a perfect, seamless parody of documentaries and a no-holds, hilariously sharp satire of shabby dreams of glory and shameless American dreamers.