It’s been a decade since Christopher Guest’s last mockumentary, For Your Consideration, and his latest, Mascots, suggests that not much about his alternately affectionate and condescending view of human grotesques has changed. He’s committed as ever to scoring laughs off the aspirations of self-delusional dreamers, constantly toeing the line between mocking their cluelessness and celebrating their eccentricities. Guest may choose the heretofore unexplored arena of competitive mascots this time around, but the character types, narrative arcs, and overall comic sensibility still feel all too familiar. To add to the once-around-the-block feeling, Guest brings back his Waiting for Guffman character, Corky St. Clair; even Parker Posey’s Cindy Babineaux is essentially a rehash of Libby Mae Brown, the perky, aspiring actress and Dairy Queen employee she played in the earlier film.
It doesn’t help that the rapid-fire gags result in a hit-or-miss pattern, ranging from the wickedly inspired to the overly broad. The most memorable bits of humor come in the climactic mascot competition, with hilarious routines including a plumber dancing with a life-size piece of excrement and a human-sized fist celebrating hockey fights. Such bizarre moments of physical humor, though, coexist alongside easy digs at reality television—such as a TV network named The Gluten Free Network whose biggest hit is Does That Smell Normal?—and some too-desperate attempts at dirty humor (“cochlear sex,” anyone?)
As self-delusional as his characters often are, Guest typically admires their commitment to achieving their extravagant dreams, however absurd said dreams may be. But while a sense of genuine humanity occasionally peeked through the striving amateur-theater performers in Waiting for Guffman, and especially the has-been folk musicians from A Mighty Wind, precious few of the characters here are so richly drawn. Instead, most seem to be chiefly defined by a single trait, from the bickering married couple, Mike (Zach Woods) and Mindy (Sarah Baker), who channel their hatred toward each other through their mascot routines, to the man, Phil (Christopher Moynihan), who obsesses over a former love interest from high school with whom he’s recently reconnected. It’s as if Guest had figured that the mere act of being a mascot was amusing enough, and felt little need to come up with genuinely colorful characters to match the supposedly weird premise.
In a break from his relentless propensity for snark, Guest offers a touching narrative thread revolving a British mascot, Owen Golly Jr. (Tom Bennett), who’s carrying on the mantle established by his father (Jim Piddock, the film’s co-writer). Tension develops when Owen Jr. wants to expand Owen Sr.’s well-established mascot routine by including a bit with a ladder, which the tradition-bound Owen Sr. rejects. In the routine he performs at the contest, however, Owen Jr. defies his father and brings the ladder in anyway—and the result is a flash of rapturous Charlie Chaplin-like death-defying physical comedy that more than just brings the house down. Unlike most of the other oddballs in Guest’s world, Owen Jr. euphorically achieves his dreams—and for a brief, shining moment, Mascots shows the compassion of which Guest is capable beyond making audience members feel superior to his characters.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.