Director: Christopher Guest
Starring: Zach Woods, Sarah Baker, Tom Bennett, Parker Posey, Susan Yeagley, Chris O’Dowd, Michael Hitchcock, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, John Michael Higgins
As writer-performer of This is Spinal Tap, and writer-director-performer of Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, Christopher Guest is undoubtedly the godfather of the mockumentary (despite his open disdain for the term), and as such, the patron saint of modern television comedies like The Office, Modern Family and Parks and Recreation. So the announcement that he would be returning to the feature mockumentary for the first time in over a decade with the Netflix original film Mascots was met with excited anticipation. Unfortunately, after a long wait, Mascots doesn’t show us anything we haven’t seen before.
As the title might suggest, Mascots concerns those large fluffy characters who dance around at sporting contests to fire up the crowd. More to the point, it concerns the people behind, or rather inside, those characters. We follow five amateur mascots from the US and UK – husband and wife mascoting team Mike (Zach Woods) and Mindy Murray (Sarah Baker), third generation mascot Owen Golly Jr. (Tom Bennett), modern-dancer Cindi Babineaux (Parker Posey), and bad boy of the world of amateur mascots Tommy “The Fist” Zucarello (Chris O’Dowd) – as they prepare for the 8th World Mascot Association Championship, aka “the Fluffies.” For the organisers of the Fluffies, this is an important year as representatives from the Gluten Free Channel are observing with a view to possibly televising the event in the future. For the contestants, as always, the Fluffies are potentially their ticket to the big time, a professional mascoting job.
Guest has always specialised in taking us into niche worlds and showing us the people who take them very, very seriously. He did it with amateur theatre in Waiting for Guffman, with competitive dog shows in Best in Show and with folk music in A Mighty Wind. So in that sense the world of amateur “sports mascottery,” as Tommy Zucarello calls it, would appear to be a perfect match for him. Despite this, Mascots lacks the spark of Guest’s previous work. It feels tired and recycled, in part because the behind-the-scenes-of-an-obscure-competition element is overly reminiscent of Best in Show, but also because in the decade-and-a-bit since Guest’s last mockumentary, the form has become so pervasive on television that we have grown immune to it. There is seemingly little it can offer to surprise us.
Due to its form Mascots lacks a strong narrative drive, lagging in the middle third between the introduction of the characters and the slight upswing that comes with the start of the competition. This is also a byproduct of Guest’s process, in which the actors extensively improvise around scene descriptions rather than having scripted dialogue, and then the film is moulded in the editing room. Guest’s films have always been more about the creation of peculiar characters and immersive worlds than intricate storylines. But the characters here don’t grab you in quite the same way. There is a lack of a lack of variety in these competitors. Where a key ingredient of some of Guest’s great characters of the past has been a lack of self-awareness, here we are mostly dealing with people who are desperate rather than deluded, all of them insecurely out to prove themselves.
Many of Guest’s regular players are here (Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Ed Belgey Jr., Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, Bob Balaban) but with most of them being too old to convincingly play the mascots themselves, they are largely consigned to supporting roles. So with the exception of Posey, the main characters are played by comparative newcomers. The result is a film that feels overcrowded, with most characters never given adequate space to breath.
At the end of the day Mascots just falls a bit flat. There are a few laughs – with so many funny people in the cast there can’t help but be – but it never manages to build any comic momentum. Die hard fans of Guest and his players will find bits and pieces to redeem the experience (a cameo appearance from Guest as his character from Waiting for Guffman, Corky St Clair, being an example), but for those without a pre-existing investment the overfamiliar material will be difficult to see what all the fuss is about.
Review by Duncan McLean
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