Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman (1996)

Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman (1996)

Working in film since the late sixties, one would have assumed that Christopher Guest, for all of his innumerable credits, would be one of the better known figures in Hollywood. That’s just not the case. Most of the writer, director and actor’s work has been well outside of whatever passes for mainstream. Over time, he’s contributed to some well known works, including 1984’s This is Spinal Tap. But even that feature maintains a reputation amongst an artier crowd than let’s say the Alien movies.

Directing Kevin Bacon in 1989’s The Big Picture didn’t do too much for Guest’s career apart from including him in the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. His first foray into directing feature length fair, though, wasn’t a total disaster and a great deal of Guest’s trademark sarcasm and satire shines through. All of his work prior to 1996, though, could be seen as a series of warm ups.

Guest was always interested in examining an insular scene whether it was through the guise of a rock band, Hollywood or eventually dog shows. But over the course of Waiting for Guffman, Guest is able to lampoon middle America, its population, people that perceive themselves to be artists and New York’s theater world. That’s a lot to take care of in just eighty four minutes.

The film, over time, has retained a fan base and for good reason. It’s not too frequently mentioned in the same breath as whatever other highlights the film world gave viewers during the nineties, but that doesn’t mean Guffman was anything short of an astounding success.

Just examining the layers which were conceived of by the writer and director exceed most of what passes for a Hollywood success. Guest, himself an actor, thought to construct a fake documentary examining thespians working out and commenting upon the process of readying an historical musical whose characters were all known, if only from stories, to the principal players. There’re a lot of layers to work through there. Guffman’s premise alone warrants its appreciation.

Of course, there’s more.

Anything that Fred Willard appears in is worth watching. His purposefully wooden delivery should delight pretty much every fan of comedy for one reason or another. And pairing him here with Catherin O’Hara results in perfect comedic timing as the two become married travel agents in this podunk town.

Appearing in one of her countless indie film roles, Parker Posey becomes a Dairy Queen working town denizen without too many hopes or dreams. And by the end of the film, viewers can see why after a bit of her back story is revealed.

But explaining each of these characters is really what Guffman intends to do. Along with systematically examining problematic, small town interactions and everyone’s relationship with big cities, Guest attempts to distill genuine, if not broad, characters during his narrative. Of course, considering other work that the writer and director has been connected to, the conclusion isn’t difficult to guess at. But here, that’s not really a problem.