DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
A MIGHTY WIND (director/writer: Christopher Guest; screenwriter: Eugene Levy; cinematographer: Arlene Donnelly Nelson; editor: Robert Leighton; music: C.J. Vanston; cast: Bob Balaban (Jonathan Steinbloom), Christopher Guest (Alan Barrows), Catherine O'Hara (Mickey Crabbe), Eugene Levy (Mitch Cohen), Jane Lynch (Laurie Bohner), John Michael Higgins (Terry Bohner), Parker Posey (Sissy Knox), Harry Shearer (Mark Shubb), Fred Willard (Mike LaFontaine), Ed Begley Jr. (Lars Olfen), Don Lake (Elliott Steinbloom), Michael McKean (Jerry Palter), Deborah Theaker (Naomi Steinbloom), Larry Miller (Wally Fenton), Jennifer Coolidge (Amber Cole), Michael Hitchcock (Lawrence E. Turpin); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Karen Murphy; Castle Rock Entertainment; 2003)

 
"Tuned just right for a droll satire of the folk music scene."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

From the comic masterminds behind the noted mockumentaries This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show comes a similarly hilarious effort. A Mighty Wind is tuned just right for a droll satire of the folk music scene.  It playfully mocks the pretensions of these dated political message-carriers and the world they epitomize. It chronicles three famous groups from the past as they prepare for a show at New York City's famed Town Hall to memorialize Irving Steinbloom, a recently deceased concert promoter. His control-freak son Jonathan Steinbloom has inherited the empire of the founder of the Folktown label, and wishes to honor his father with a concert featuring his favorites. The wormy personality of Jonathan might have been shaped from childhood, when his overbearing Jewish mother made him wear a polo helmet while playing chess. 

The first group featured is the passionate 1960s folk trio called the Folksmen (Guest, McKean, Shearer), a group that is making their comeback after losing favor with the public while still clinging to their almost popular song “Old Joe’s Place.” Guest is the loopy banjo player. McKean is the aging matinee idol pretty boy and guitar player, whose voice blends into the middle range of the other two. Shearer is Amish-bearded and bald and plays the bass, and will learn before the film ends that he really feels more comfortable as a woman. Another act is the upbeat commercial “New Main Street Singers,” a spunky group of nine-members wearing uniforms of sweater vests and unabashedly promoting their spotless family value image. Behind the scenes there's a fling at pornography, street life, and quack cultish beliefs. My favorite in the group is the bouncy Parker Posey a mandolin player and daughter of a member of the original group, who has her red hair done in two cute girlish curls. The group's leaders are a zany couple, John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch. Jane is the mother figure who made it from pornos to the Florida-based feel-good group and Higgins is an energetic believer in some weird cultish color theory about the power of its vibrations, which he attributes to helping him find success. The group is despised by the Folksmen for lacking the folk spirit of the serious musicians. The funniest and most touching group is Mickey and Mitch, a popular former coffeehouse folk duo. They were lovers who split up and are out of showbiz, and fight back their emotional pain to talk about their past relationship and as professionals rehearse for the show without giving in to their pain. The grey-haired Eugene Levy plays the burned out folk singer with a tender intensity. He has just been released from a mental institution and seems disoriented and speaks with obvious difficulty in a halting way and perpetuates a blank stare. His sanity is still questionable. The once hip Catherine O'Hara is now a square married to a salesman of medical equipment specializing in catheters for "bladder-control," whose hobby is model trains. Mitch is invited over to his former partner's suburban house, to see if they can manage to get together for one more performance after 28 years of not speaking. The men reluctantly bond and take leave to the hobby room. They peer down intently on the model-train setup, as Mitch's succinct comment is that he would have liked to see the display in autumn instead of winter. On stage the duo will sing their historic signature song "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," which calls for a heartfelt kiss that originally sent shivers through the folk scene community. Though it all might seem ridiculous, the romance between the two is credible and even moving despite all the comedy emanating from the has-been singing star. 

Director Christopher Guest's writing collaborator is the gifted Eugene Levy. They selectively chose the folk scene they wanted, as their spoof left out all the protest and political music of that era and a wide variety of other folk singers from bluegrass to Nashville. The only hint of politics is when the Folksmen are asked to stall during the concert and talk about the Spanish civil war. 

What made the film bitingly funny was that the ensemble cast took their roles seriously and played into the absurd dialogue and situations in a matter-of-fact tone. The comedy is subtle and many jokes might fly past an audience not prepared for such a mannered parody, who are more used to the in-your-face mall comedies. Fred Willard is delightfully obnoxious as the promoter with crass ideas, in particular a TV show featuring the New Main Street Singers as daytime supreme court judges who at night all live together and create folk music. Jennifer Coolidge and Larry Miller are a scream as tacky publicists, a couple who think as one brain. If there's a fault to all this controlled madness, it is that Guest fails to flesh out too many of the characters. But he does a good job in getting to the Bob Balaban and Eugene Levy characters. Also, the comedy was tamer than in his other parodies. But those films have set such a high bar, that even when the comedy comes in on a slightly lower level the overall effect is still first-class. 

REVIEWED ON 5/20/2003     GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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