In Christopher Guest’s “Mascots,” there’s a funny scene in which the judges for the 8th World Mascot Association Championship in Anaheim, Calif. — a competition known as “the Fluffies” — call one of the 20 competing finalists onto the carpet for an alleged sin of political incorrectness. The judges include the ever-beaming Michael Hitchcock as a persnickety control freak in a sweater vest, Ed Begley Jr. as an old curmudgeon with a “micro-penis,” Don Lake as a geek version of J.K. Simmons, and Jane Lynch, with her never-less-than-hilarious cutthroat hauteur, as the author of a book called “A Moose-ing Grace: A Mascot’s Journey to God.”
The finalist who’s in hot water is Cindy Babineaux (Parker Posey), a broken-down belle in a frowzy dye job whose mascot character is Alvin the Armadillo, from a college in the heart of Mississippi. The trouble is that the team was once named the Leaping Squaws. The appropriateness of “the S-word” is avidly debated (as is the appropriateness of “Leaping,” which is accused of being homophobic). Finally, someone suggests that they ask the “Indian” clerk downstairs, even though he’s from India and not a Native American. “What’s the difference?” asks Lynch, with a blinkered scowl that makes you think she really doesn’t know. At a moment like that, “Mascots” has some of the old Christopher Guest snap and zing — that feeling that the next thing to pop out of the characters’ mouths will prove to be even more quietly insane than the thing they just said.
Yet for too much of “Mascots,” the deadpan daffiness never rises to that level of surprise. A movie about amateur sports mascots, who do what they do for love, sounded like a perfect premise to pour into the Guest mockumentary mold. Watching “Mascots,” though, you’re always aware of just how formatted the form has become. There is, once again, a contest, and the characters are eager second-raters with over-inflated egos (at least, in theory — most of them are almost innocuously sweet). The judges are fussbudgets who take it all very seriously, and the competition itself, in the last half hour, is designed to be the Big Laugh payoff. Guest may have been to this well once too often. The basic talking-into-the-camera style and countdown-to-the-performance design still plays, but in “Mascots” it now looks like cut-rate reality TV, and there’s very little comic astonishment left. The truth is that Guest did a better job of this before — more funny and outlandish and inspired, more rich with something beyond the laughs.
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It was exactly 20 years ago that Guest brought “Waiting for Guffman” to the Toronto International Film Festival, and I have no problem saying that it’s the most sublime comedy of the last 20 years. It was the second of his mockumentaries, and the first great one (unless you count “This Is Spinal Tap,” the Rob Reiner classic I have long considered Guest to be the unofficial co-creator of), and you might have to go back to early Woody Allen or maybe Preston Sturges to find a comedy of such lyrical nuthouse dazzle, one that was so simultaneously scalding and affectionate. Guest’s performance as Corky St. Clair, the closeted small-town theater bug, was a satirical epiphany, an example of how comedy acting can be great acting, period.
Corky makes a cameo appearance in “Mascots,” as the mentor of Posey’s Cindy, and for a moment he conjures a bit of the old courtly magic (“Bone-er!” he says, after too close a hug). There are Guest fans who cherish everything he does, and “Mascots” may be enough of a movie for them. Over the years, though, this particular Guest fan has gone hot and cold. I never thought “Best in Show” was a masterpiece, though there’s no doubt that when Fred Willard takes over the movie, it soars. Apart from “Guffman,” my favorite Guest film is “A Mighty Wind,” which managed to thumb its nose at folk music even as it reveled in the wistful romance of folk. (It somehow melded hilarity and bittersweet nostalgia.) That’s what Guest, at his best, can do: skewer the thing his characters are obsessed with, yet celebrate — through laughter — the crazy glory of their obsession.
In “Mascots,” the characters are mostly grown-up male losers in ugly striped ties who live to put on those giant furry character heads. The costumes are like avatars that allow them to conceal themselves from the world and, at the same time, to express their inner goofy rock star. That’s the idea, at least, and in theory it’s a timely one, given that we’re living in an age when hordes of dress-up dweebs ritually descend upon Comic-Con.
The real truth, though, is that all those fanboys and fangirls seem more honestly obsessive than the characters in “Mascots.” The movie is a little lazy; it doesn’t push its premise to the outer fringes of cracked fixation. Instead, it relies too much on the broad sight gag of those oversize costumes (a joke that’s used up in about 20 minutes), and on the mostly unexplored suggestion of a double entendre — the fact that the characters are a bit like members of the cult of furry fandom, the anthropomorphic animal dress-up fetishists who (sometimes, though not always) get off erotically on their outfits. In “Mascots,” the joke of it all remains fairly abstract. The characters claim to be devotional, but they rarely invoke mascot fever with the giggle-riot narcissism of the small-town theater players in “Waiting for Guffman” or the ardent folk singers in “A Mighty Wind” or the competitive dog lovers in “Best in Show.”
Most of them are pretty desperate characters, like Posey’s Cindy, with her homemade duct-taped Armadillo head and utter lack of a life, or Zach Woods and Sarah Baker as a married couple who keep tiptoeing around the fact that they’re in a permanent state of war, or Chris O’Dowd as a beaten-down horndog. Without their mascot guises, they’ve got nothing — and you could say the same for the movie. It lopes along, merrily but a bit slack, always reminding you of the earlier Guest films, and then it works up a bit of a fizz in the competition. The onstage mascot performances are amusing bits of artfully choreographed tomfoolery: a character named Jack the Plumber who fixes a toilet and then, amusingly, dances around with what pops out of it, a British character named Sid the Hedgehog who battles a soccer ball as charmingly as Scrat from the “Ice Age” films chases down his acorn, or O’Dowd’s heavy-metal giant fist. These performances are fun, but the movie itself doesn’t add up to much. Guest needs to do more than find a subculture to satirize — he needs to come up with a new form. Because this one, as great as it once was, is played out.