Waiting for Guffman (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Thirty minutes into Waiting for Guffman, my stomach hurt from laughing. Like some of the most brilliant comedies of recent years -- Clerks, Living in Oblivion, and Flirting with Disaster, to name a few -- Waiting for Guffman reminds us of the true meaning of the term "sidesplitting." And, unlike in many of the movies on my "funniest films" list, there's nothing bizarre or twisted about this humor. The laughs dished out by Waiting for Guffman are universally accessible.

Director/co-writer Christopher Guest is most recognized for two things: his satire and his marriage to Jamie Lee Curtis. His best-known work is undoubtedly This is Spinal Tap, which he co-authored and appeared in. Those familiar with that film will find certain similarities to Waiting for Guffman, the most obvious of which is the faux documentary format. However, where Spinal Tap, like many parodies, relied upon acid humor and vicious barbs to generate laughter, Waiting for Guffman is a much gentler creation. This movie can be considered an affectionate satire, because, while it pokes fun at small-town America and high school stage productions, it also offers up a heartfelt homage to them.

Because the title sounds like Waiting for Godot, some viewers may be fooled into expecting highbrow entertainment from Waiting for Guffman. They are in for a huge surprise, for, although Guest's film is exceptionally perceptive, there's nothing remotely artsy or pretentious about it. This "documentary", which chronicles the production of an amateur play to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the fictitious town of Blaine, Missouri, offers one laugh after another.

Blaine has two claims to fame -- it's the "stool capital of the United States" and it was visited by a UFO before Roswell was ever heard of. In fact, when the aliens landed in Blaine, they invited the residents on board their ship for a pot luck dinner, and when they took off, they left behind a circular landing site within which the weather never changes (67 degrees with a 40% chance of rain). Now, Blaine is 150 years old, and, to celebrate the occasion, the town council has decided on a number of special events, all to culminate with the play "Red, White, and Blaine", which is to be produced at the local high school.

Directing this play is off-off-off-off-Broadway exile Corky St. Claire (Christopher Guest), the man who attempted to turn Backdraft into a stage production. Corky is ably assisted by his music director, Lloyd Miller (Bob Balaban), and has a fine cast of six. They are the husband-and-wife team of Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara), Blaine's travel agents (who have never been outside of Blaine), local dentist Allan Pearl (co-writer and Second City alum Eugene Levy), Dairy Queen waitress Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey), auto mechanic Johnny Savage (Matt Keeslar), and an old coot by the name of Clifford Wooley (Lewis Arquette). Abandoning their day jobs and SCRABBLE clubs, they come together to breathe life into a musical version of Blaine's history.

There are numerous reasons why Waiting for Guffman works. In the first place, it has intimate knowledge of the objects of its satire. Like Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale, this movie understands the backstage ins-and-outs of putting on an amateur production, and uses the funny side of that background in the script. Anyone who has ever participated in a high school play will be struck with an eerie sense of familiarity. And those who have lived in communities like Blaine will immediately recognize the acuteness of Guest's perception.

Secondly, Waiting for Guffman doesn't go for cheap laughs. While the performance of the play (which takes up the final third of the film) has a few minor mishaps, it is not populated with the kind of pratfalls that could lead to easy laughs. The play comes off much as it might in real life. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, there's the same kind of charm about "Red, White, and Blaine" that there is about any amateur production where the players substitute enthusiasm for talent.

Although I won't reveal the film's biggest laughs, I can mention that one has to do with a re-interpretation of a scene from a critically-acclaimed motion picture and another pokes fun at the kind of movie merchandising that surrounds big-budget goliaths like Star Wars. The auditions for the play are an especially good source of humor, since all of them are improvised and Guest is seeing them for the first time as they're being presented to the camera.

Everyone in the cast is on-target, from Guest, who plays Corky as is-he-or-isn't-he-gay, to Larry Miller as Blaine's mayor. Special note should be made of Parker Posey (in the process of challenging Lili Taylor as the independent film queen), whose portrayal of Libby Mae couldn't be more on-target, and Eugene Levy, who plays the most fun-loving dentist since Steve Martin donned a leather jacket in Little Shop of Horrors.

There is such a thing as comic momentum, and Guest has a good sense of what that means. Comic momentum doesn't refer to nonstop jokes, but to an atmosphere that is always ripe for humor. By utilizing accomplished performers and crisp editing (60 hours of footage has been trimmed to 84 minutes), the director achieves this. I'm not certain how widely Sony Pictures Classics intends to distribute the film, but this movie is worth seeking out. Waiting for Guffman is one of those too-rare motion pictures that actually lives up to the label of "a comedy".

Waiting for Guffman (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:24
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1