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Vanity Fare 

I am a big fan of Christopher Guest and his talented troupe of comics who have brought us the exquisite comedies Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Guest and his associates sprang from comedy clubs and such landmark television programs as Saturday Night Live and SCTV. They have been making me laugh for most of my adult life, and in the process, they've made me shake my head in amazement at their wide command of American culture and the extent of their talents, which include song writing and singing in addition to sketch acting. In the middle 1980s, Guest and friends Harry Shearer and Michael McKean teamed up with director Rob Reiner on the gaspingly funny This is Spinal Tap and in the process developed a collaborative, improvisational approach to making ensemble comedies. Starting with Guffman in 1996, Guest and former SCTV star Eugene Levy have blocked out a premise and an outline of scenes. They've then gathered their players and let the actors do the talking as their individual muses have inspired them. Over and over again, the strategy has produced comedic gold, and it does so once again in their current For Your Consideration. Fans of this series won't want to miss this installment, even though it doesn't quite rise to the heights of its predecessors.

Spinal Tap mocks heavy metal. Guffman spoofs small-town community theater. Best in Show parodies pet contests. And A Mighty Wind lampoons folk music revivals. Now, For Your Consideration mines laughs in the film industry. The plot worries about the pitfalls of getting too big for your artistic breeches. Guest plays a laidback director making an independent film called Home for Purim, a World War II drama about an American Jewish family. Shearer plays the journeyman actor who stars as the father. Catherine O'Hara is the veteran character actress who portrays the family's dying mother, and Parker Posey is a struggling comic cast as O'Hara's estranged daughter who hasn't seen her parents in 12 years because she's a (just mouth the word) lesbian. Guest's usual array of collaborators fill out other roles. McKean and Bob Balaban are Purim's screenwriters. Levy is Shearer's smarmy, double-dealing agent. Ed Begley Jr. is a makeup artist. Jennifer Coolidge is the producer who has coughed up the money but hasn't a clue about filmmaking. The hilariously whacked Fred Willard and the gleamingly menacing Jane Lynch are hosts of a glitzy TV news show covering show-biz.

The story in For Your Consideration will remind viewers of Guffman in several critical ways. In both, a largely unknown group of performers is assembled to put on a show. And the players get their hopes up far beyond what they can realistically hope to achieve. Guffman's town anniversary production is just an amateur review; yet its participants naively come to believe they have a chance to take their show to Broadway. Purim is just an anachronistic, overwrought melodrama, but O'Hara, Shearer and Posey become convinced they are going to get Oscar nominations. And in so doing, of course, they expose themselves to the possibility of considerable disappointment. And that's too bad because it shifts their focus from the work itself to acclaim they may or may not derive from the work.

Campaigning for Oscars has probably always existed. But it has become increasingly notorious in recent years as film companies have barraged Academy voters and film critics with screeners and promotional materials routinely labeled "for your consideration," hence the film's title. Once studio suits hear the Oscar buzz around Purim, they step in to demand the title be changed to Home for Thanksgiving and the script be revised to "diminish the Jewishness." Pointed stuff, of course, and no doubt all too typical.

Nonetheless, For Your Consideration isn't ultimately about studio award campaigns but rather about the perils of individual vanity. Here I think the film takes an ill-advised turn. The townspeople in Guffman who wanted to sing and dance were silly, but the film makes us root for them even as we laugh at them. The characters in A Mighty Wind may be has beens or never wases, but they do have talent, and when Levy and O'Hara sing "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" they're not just good, they put an arrow in your heart. For Your Consideration lets Shearer's character return to the commercial career from which he has emerged with chipper enough demeanor. And maybe Posey has gained something positive from her Purim experience. But the film is almost cruel to O'Hara's character, whose response to Purim's sudden spotlight seems so inconsistent with the plucky woman we meet in the opening frames that I left the theater with the taste of ashes in my mouth. Yes, of course, the serious and the funny can satisfactorily be mingled, but the contract of comedy pledges something sunnier than we get in the final passage here.

click to enlarge Brian Chubb (Christopher Moynihan), Victor Allen Miller - (Harry Shearer), Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara) and Callie - Webb (Parker Posey) try to flip some holiday schmaltz into - Oscar buzz. - WARNER INDEPENDENT PICTURES
  • Warner Independent Pictures
  • Brian Chubb (Christopher Moynihan), Victor Allen Miller (Harry Shearer), Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara) and Callie Webb (Parker Posey) try to flip some holiday schmaltz into Oscar buzz.
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