Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind , from a screenplay by Mr. Guest and Eugene Levy, has generated a great deal of buzz-both favorable and unfavorable-for its affectionately satiric swipe at the cultural backwater of folk music. Put me down in the unfavorable faction, though I can’t say that A Mighty Wind filled me with undue malice or malaise. This is to say that you could do a lot worse in the current, generally dreary moviegoing season.
After four ventures, one might suspect that the formula of the deadpan mockumentary-audience-addressed, talking-head-style interviews accentuating the ridiculous-is beginning to run out of comic steam. It all began with Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap , in which Mr. Guest collaborated on the largely improvised screenplay with Mr. Reiner, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. Mr. McKean and Mr. Shearer teamed up with Mr. Guest to form the nucleus of Spinal Tap, an aging British has-been rock band with a succession of self-destructing drummers, on a dismal “comeback” tour. The post-Beatles, post–Rolling Stones rock scene of that era was so close to self-parody anyway that This Is Spinal Tap turned out to be perfectly timed.
While Mr. Reiner went on to less gimmicky success in a variety of genres, with such entertainments as Stand by Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Misery (1990), Mr. Guest branched off on his own 14 years later with a new working collaborator, Eugene Levy, to fashion a mockumentary on regional theater entitled Waiting for Guffman (1997), which revolved around the 150th-anniversary celebrations in the fictional town of Blaine, Mo. The gags and take-offs in Guffman were much further removed from reality than those in Spinal Tap . For example, Paul Dooley, as a Blaine town elder, describes with a straight face the visit in a flying saucer of space aliens with a strange compulsion to probe his various orifices. Meanwhile, the commemoration musical put on by the local theater company to thunderous applause is so badly performed that it gives amateurism a bad name.
Mr. Guest plays the none-too-closeted gay theater director, and Mr. Levy a no-talent dentist with laughable showbiz aspirations. What has since emerged as the zany Guest-Levy stock company of players was started in Guffman with the casting of sprightly, tongue-in-cheek Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban and Fred Willard as singularly incompetent musical performers.
Then came Best in Show (2000), the most felicitous of the Guest-Levy collaborations and a complete delight in its kind-heartedly hilarious contemplation of the very solemn ceremonies of dog shows. Both warm and funny, Best in Show owed much of its charm and insouciance to the poised and pedigreed dogs, who kept their snarling, giddy masters and mistresses on a tight leash of seriousness and decorum. By magnifying the closeted-gay subtext of Waiting for Guffman into an overt gay subplot in Best in Show , Messrs. Guest and Levy seem to subscribe to the old Borscht Belt wisdom that gay routines get the biggest, easiest and cheapest laughs. Fortunately, most of the movie is much better than that. Jennifer Coolidge and Ed Begley Jr. were welcome new additions to the Guest-Levy stock company in Best in Show , and they’ve stayed on to supply some of the merriment in A Mighty Wind .
There is no shortage of performers with comic skills in A Mighty Wind . What’s lacking instead is a visible premise for the satire and ridicule. If this seemingly pathetic band of musical losers is supposed to represent the Bob Dylan–Joan Baez–Simon & Garfunkel–Judy Collins–Peter, Paul and Mary generation, where are all the memories of left-wing protest politics, experiments with sex and drugs, harrowing bus and small-plane trips on endless tours with clinging and grasping groupies? Mr. Guest and Mr. Levy have even dispensed with the easy gay gibes, creating characters so unnaturally wholesome and nonthreatening that they make the rock characters in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous look Zola-esque by comparison.
Mr. Guest and Mr. Levy have made one prudent move by injecting a note of romantic sentiment into the proceedings, with the strangely moving reunion of a long-divorced musical team, Mitch and Mickey (Mr. Levy and Ms. O’Hara), for one “end of the rainbow” kiss. It sounds corny, and it is-especially since Mr. Levy’s character is virtually catatonic at the time. But Mr. Guest and Mr. Levy demonstrate what Charlie Chaplin discovered long ago: You can’t make a successful feature-length movie comedy without weaving in a delicate narrative fabric of romance to engage the audience emotionally.
By now, Mr. Guest and his musical cohorts, Mr. McKean and Mr. Shearer, have had so much practice together musically and satirically that they could start their own television series. But they are essentially low-octane novelty singers; I can’t imagine them undertaking anything even remotely as inflammatory as “If I Had a Hammer” or “Blowing in the Wind.” Indeed, the vaguely inspirational lyrics of the title song sound suspiciously conformist in the context of today’s organized campaigns against any trace of political dissent. When satirists lose their bite, we are all a little less free.
Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth , from a screenplay by Larry Cohen, raises more questions than it answers as it attempts to convince us that a moralistic sniper would torture a sleazy publicist into tears of guilt and remorse over what amounts to a few paltry, venial sins. Phone Booth ‘s Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) has been compared to Sidney Falco, the unapologetically cynical publicist (brilliantly played by the critically abused Tony Curtis) in Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957). I thought the 50′s were supposed to be comparatively repressed next to our own bold millennium, but Sidney is 10 times the monster Stu ever thought of being. Let us count the ways. First, Sidney does a little hard-core pimping of a waitress (Barbara Nichols) to get an odious pinko smear on a jazz musician planted in a gossip column. Then he actually plants some illegal drugs in the musician’s coat to get him busted and beaten by a crooked cop. And this doesn’t include all the lying and cheating all along the way. By contrast, Stu is accused by his tormentor of planning to cheat on his wife Kelly (Rada Mitchell) by sweet-talking an aspiring actress, Pamela McFadden (Katie Holmes), into an assignation disguised as an audition. He also strings along a male intern, who does everything but Stu’s laundry for no pay, with false promises of a big career break. And he lies and cheats, etc., in the course of servicing his psychopathic celebrity clients with magazine covers and the like. Big deal! Our mostly unseen but much-overheard vigilante for the Inquisition (Kiefer Sutherland) would probably have shot Jimmy Carter for having confessed to having lust in his heart in Playboy magazine.
Phone Booth has also been compared to Anatole Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), in which a psychosomatically bedridden bitch (Barbara Stanwyck) becomes increasingly hysterical as a series of telephone calls leads her to the realization that her long-bullied husband has hired a killer to finish her off. Sorry, Wrong Number was originally a radio play starring Agnes Moorehead, and the endlessly talky Phone Booth itself has the feel and sound of a radio play. The major resemblance between the two films, however, is more in the emotional breakdown of the two protagonists than in their respective plot lines. The aging Stanwyck (1907-1990), barely past 40 and edging toward the twilight of her career, sought refuge in gothic woman-in-distress melodramas, the vogue for which began with a young Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). But for the supposed new hunk of 2003, breaking down in unmanly tears and blubbering out his misdeeds is a strange career move. Mr. Farrell’s not bad at it, but it would seem to be the antithesis of “cool.”
Some critics have already complained about the presence of prostitutes in hot pants along with their pimps in what is supposed to be the post-Giuliani, post-Disney Times Square neighborhood. But the pimp-whore challenge to Stu for possession of the phone booth constitutes one of the most significant plot elements of the movie, inasmuch as a particularly obnoxious pimp is one of the only two actual victims of the sniper, though just about every other key character is menaced at one time or another by the tell-tale red circle of the sniper’s laser-guided telescopic sight. The point is that Phone Booth has much more bark than bite, though the presence of a sniper’s rifle makes the movie uncomfortably timely.
What is not timely, of course, is the notion of a public telephone booth as a medium of communication. In the era of the cell phone, if a visitor from Mars should drop in on any street scene in any city in the world, he might be forgiven for thinking that the streets are full of people talking to themselves. As if to counter that obvious objection to the movie’s premise, the picture begins with an authoritative lecture on the huge number of calls made each day from telephone booths. Even so, why would prostitutes and pimps depend on phone booths when they can use cell phones of their own?
Still, I must confess that Phone Booth kept me from looking at my watch for the whole 81 minutes of its running time, and I must credit my sustained attention to the attraction of omnipotent evil cloaked in the robes of morality and armed with technological adaptability. There is also our perpetual susceptibility, after 9/11, to the arbitrary nature of terror in our already uncertain existence. Thus, despite all its improbabilities and even its imbecilities, Phone Booth has gotten more credit than it deserves. It is also wonderfully old-fashioned-and exceptionally old-Hollywood-to witness the humbling of a self-confessed male heel as he grovels at the feet of two first-class lookers like Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Holmes, the former for having violated his vows, and the latter for breaking his promises. Feminist revenge doesn’t come any sweeter than this.
Andrei Konchalovsky’s House of Fools , from his own screenplay, is the first film I’ve seen that deals with what is described as the first Chechen war in 1996. Most of the action takes place in a mental hospital near Ingushetia’s border with Russia. Don’t ask me what or where Ingushetia happens to be, because the production notes didn’t tell me. What they do say is that the film was inspired by the true story of a mental hospital near the border, a hospital that was invaded first by Chechen troops and then by the Russians, along with all the tanks and other armored vehicles on either side.
The film itself is clear enough in its contours, a romantic fantasy centered on one character, Zhanna (Yuliya Vysotskaya), a permanent patient in the hospital who plays an accordion constantly, thus producing colorized transformations of her surroundings in her mind. Bryan Adams, an international pop star, plays himself as her literal dream lover, though she is briefly attracted to a Chechen soldier named Ahmed (Sultan Islamov). What impressed me most about the film was the gentle, unthreatening natures of both the men at war and the inmates of the asylum. Zhanna floats through the movie without a single moment of menace to her presumed dreamlike virginity. I haven’t seen armies with so little lust and lechery since the first Hollywood movies about “our boys” in World War II.
In the pleasant haze of my almost total mystification, I felt a feeling of regret surging through the entire Russian nation not only over the Chechens, but over the many obstacles standing in the way of the Tolstoyan dream of universal brotherhood. House of Fools is a kindly film with a generous heart beaming through the discordant rumblings of useless wars.