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Film Review: Mascots

Mascots (2016; Directed by Christopher Guest)

Off the top, let me state my firm reluctance to look a gift horse in the mouth. Christopher Guest’s latest largely-improvised mockumentary about passionate weirdos and their insular communal competitive rituals focuses on sports mascots, and it’s certainly funny. Not Best in Show funny, not even A Mighty Wind funny, and not as singular or accomplished as Waiting for Guffman, even if it’s about equivalently funny (and features a cameo from that film’s memorable central character). It definitely tops For Your Consideration, which had its moments of inspiration but generally was lost in inside jokes that Guest and his movie veteran team certainly must have found frightfully amusing (we’re glad for them, really).

So Mascots is funny. What else do you want from the Guestiverse? Frankly, insight. At their best, the products of Guest’s meticulous yet spontaneous comedy filmmaking method don’t just invite us to laugh at community theatre productions, dog shows, clean-cut white folk music, independent film productions, or sports mascots. They invite us to understand and even empathize with the people who would rather participate – indeed succeed – in these obscure disciplines, who thirst for whatever piddling recognition that success affords them, and who struggle with real-life problems (resentments, lack of respect, relationship gaps, and always, always jealousy) in pursuit of a dream that makes many others chuckle at their expense. At their absolute finest (I’m thinking of the Mitch & Mickey subplot in A Mighty Wind specifically here), Guest’s movies can make us feel as deeply and as satisfyingly as they can make us laugh.

Mascots tacks close to the laughs. The customary big event that brings Guest’s cast of mildly wacky characters is an international championship competition for the World Mascot Association’s coveted Gold Fluffy Award for the best in the business. The costumed merrymakers’ most prestigious trophy is contended for by a series of oddballs. There’s a bickering husband-and-wife team of minor league baseball marine animals (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker), a high-school-football-boosting cartoon plumber (Christopher Moynihan), a contemporary-dancing dystopian armadillo (the brilliant Parker Posey, because who else could make that work?), a hard-drinking, womanizing Irishman (Chris O’Dowd) who plays a rock n’ roll bad-boy minor hockey character called The Fist, and a sweet-natured English butcher (Tom Bennett) carrying on the family tradition of hedgehogging for his local footie club.

The competitive mascots, all younger and mostly new Guest collaborators, are supplemented by older, established guests of Guest: association administrators (Michael Hitchcock is the WMA President, ever-vigilant for rogue backstage furries and possessed of a suspiciously encyclopedic knowledge of their terminology of perversions), judges (including Jane Lynch and Ed Begley, Jr. as retired rivals), coaches (Fred Willard, out in left field as usual), sponsors (Bob Balaban as a baseball owner and Jennifer Coolidge as his escort-turned-wife), potential television broadcasters (John Michael Higgins plays one of these and has a hilarious riff on the various specialty networks and programs he’s produced), and family members. The less likable people will have misfortune befall them, the most endearing will be rewarded with glory. The various subplots cross paths at the competition and then go their separate ways.

The types of jokes utilized in Mascots, and sometimes, it seems, even the jokes themselves, are frequently recycled from past Guest efforts. What is entirely unique, and consequently Mascots‘ purest pleasure, is the performance routines themselves. Guest smartly holds back as much of the in-suit antics as possible until the competition scenes near the climax, and even if his editing directs the desired audience reaction to each act, there’s real affection from his camera for the neo-vaudeville panache of mascotery.

The problem with Mascots dons on the viewer as it goes on, in respites between genuine but quickly-faded laughter. It gradually dawns on you that Christopher Guest’s movies have, by this point, become precisely what they mean to satirize: inwardly-focused niche culture displays that inspire gentle mockery for just how much importance their participants attach to the result. Perhaps this is a testament to Guest’s dedication to his craft and immersion in the subcultural milieus that he depicts. But it’s equally likely that it represents a lack of scope, a certain narrowness of perspective in general (the casting is pretty noticeably Caucasian-centric, too, which might be related). Mascots will make you laugh, most likely, and that always deserves to be appreciated. But it’s minor, ultimately, and with the limited vision of a performer inside of a mascot head.

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