Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy apply their loosely scripted, improvisational model to '60s folk music groups in "A Mighty Wind." While the formula is showing signs of strain, the gifted repertory company again creates an amusing gallery of incisively observed characters, riffing off each other with enjoyment levels that prove contagious.

Having skewered small-town amateur theatrics in “Waiting for Guffman” and pedigree dog competitions in “Best in Show,” Christopher Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy apply their loosely scripted, improvisational model to ’60s folk music groups in “A Mighty Wind.” While the mockumentary formula is showing signs of strain, the gifted repertory company again creates an amusing gallery of incisively observed characters, riffing off each other with enjoyment levels that frequently prove contagious. Unlikely as it is to match the $18.7 million domestic gross of the far more consistent “Show” or the cult status of “Guffman,” new comedy should milk modest theatrical returns from Guest and Co.’s following before a breezy performance on video/DVD.

Starting in 1984 with Rob Reiner’s “This Is Spinal Tap” — in which Guest co-starred with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, who join him again here — and continuing with the aforementioned faux docus, Guest has honed a method that combines basic plot points and character outlines, a sharp-witted ensemble to improvise dialogue, some 50 to 80 hours of filmed material and a long editing process to shape a feature out of the footage.

Pic opens with the passing of legendary folk music impresario Irving Steinbloom, who fostered a number of star performers in the 1960s. Attempting to honor his father’s memory, anal retentive control freak Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban) organizes a tribute concert at New York City Town Hall to reunite the man’s key acts for the first time in decades. These are the relentlessly upbeat, guitar-strumming “neuftet” the Main Street Singers, one-hit troubadour trio the Folksmen, and flower-child duo Mitch & Mickey, whose romance was played on-stage and off until a messy breakup.

Majority of the musicians hook up again with little friction. The Folksmen (Guest, McKean and Shearer) are more follicle challenged but otherwise just as congenial as they were in their prime; and the Main Street Singers have evolved with appropriate harmony into the New Main Street Singers following the departure of a co-founder to run a sex emporium.

N.M.S.S. members include perky tambourinist Sissy Knox (Posey), and New Age husband and wife Laurie and Terry Bohner (Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins), who have the same apple-pie attitude to the wholesome group’s sunny inspirational repertoire as they do to Laurie’s former career in porn. (She learned to play ukulele on “Not So Tiny Tim.”)

Most of the tension comes from the reunion of Mitch (Levy) and Mickey (Catherine O’Hara), whose signature tune “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” traditionally culminated with a lip-lock. Their marital split was followed by Mitch’s mental meltdown and a series of depressed solo albums. He gives Steinbloom grief by going AWOL just before going onstage at the reunion.

The triumphant concert itself is enjoyably rendered, avoiding condescending parody of the hokey tunes in favor of a similar spirit of playful affection to the one that enlivened the folksy bluegrass revisitation of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The amusingly corn-laden song lyrics were penned by Guest, Levy, Shearer, O’Hara, producer C.J. Vanston, Higgins, McKean and his wife Annette O’Toole and are sung with impressively authentic-sounding gusto. Some of the wittiest tracks are saved for the end credits.

But it’s in the post-concert scenes checking in on the musicians six months later that the comic well runs a little dry, with outcomes that feel more like gag-driven concoctions, somewhat forcing the humor.

Several members of the ensemble here tone down the usual heightened eccentricity and absurd foibles into something approaching believable characterizations. In general, the comedy is more low-key than in “Show” or “Guffman,” but there’s undoubtedly a wry fascination in seeing actors like O’Hara (affecting a light Irish brogue), Posey, Balaban and McKean play this kind of material semi-straight.

Other regulars go a more directly quirky route, such as Levy, who makes Mitch an intense emotional wreck with a sadly fried brain; Fred Willard as the N.M.S.S. manager with a yen for the same kind of inopportune hoary humor as his “Show” character; Ed Begley Jr. as a Scandinavian-Jewish public television exec with folk music in his blood; and Jennifer Coolidge, who’s disappointingly underused but extremely funny in her brief scenes as a profoundly dim publicist.

While the narrative feels less developed here than in the previous films and suffers from some dips in the concert buildup, editor Robert Leighton does a fine job of whittling the material down into a tight 90 minutes. Visual style again appropriates a no-frills documentary look.

A Mighty Wind

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Castle Rock Entertainment production. Produced by Karen Murphy. Directed by Christopher Guest. Screenplay, Guest, Eugene Levy.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Arlene Donnelly Nelson; editor, Robert Leighton; music/songs, Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Levy, Annette O'Toole, Catherine O'Hara, C.J. Vanston, John Michael Higgins; music producer, Vanston; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; art director, Pat Tagliaferro; set decorator, Dena Roth; costume designer, Durinda Wood; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Mark Weingarten; line producer, Donna E. Bloom; assistant director, Scott Robertson; casting, Richard Hicks. Reviewed at Warner Bros. screening room, New York, April 3, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Jonathan Steinbloom - Bob Balaban Alan Barrows - Christopher Guest Terry Bohner - John Michael Higgins Mitch Cohen - Eugene Levy Laurie Bohner - Jane Lynch Jerry Palter - Michael McKean Mickey Devlin Crabbe - Catherine O'Hara Sissy Knox - Parker Posey Mark Shubb - Harry Shearer Mike LaFontaine - Fred Willard
With: Ed Begley Jr., Jennifer Coolidge, Paul Dooley, Michael Hitchcock, Don Lake, Larry Miller, Deborah Theaker.

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