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Christopher Guest’s Mascots is perfect Netflix viewing

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

I saw Mascots a few weeks ago and it hasn’t really stuck with me. It’s a solidly funny movie, hilarious throughout, but I can’t quote you specific jokes or even name specific characters. Weirdly enough, it’s the sort of movie that I would say is worth seeing but not worth a trip to the theater, but you don’t even have to go to the theater to see it. Mascots is perfect Netflix viewing. It’s a good one to watch at home when you don’t want to go out and it’s also a good source of calming audio for those dark nights when your head is racing and you can’t sleep. Again, I do want to stress that this movie is really, really, really funny and should only be used as a cure for insomnia once it has been properly viewed in full. But, considering the fact that it’s the first proper feature-length Christopher Guest mockumentary in over ten years, I was still left wanting more.

This movie comes at a weird point in Christopher Guest’s career. His style of mockumentary has become so iconic that you cannot do any work in the genre without being compared to This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, or Best in Show. The general structure of introducing a bunch of wacky characters, uniting them by a common interest, and bringing them together at a giant event has become enshrined as the “right” way to do a mockumentary. It’s a loose, yet specific, format that puts all emphasis on the characters and their relationships. Best in Show wasn’t really about the ins and outs of the dog show trade, it was about people and what draws them to such a strange preoccupation.

Take, for example, the famous moment in Best in Show wherein the dopey Southern Bassett hound owner Harlan Pepper (Guest himself) gives a heartfelt monologue straight into the camera about his affinity for naming various kinds of nuts. It’s wacky and it’s silly but it’s more than that because of the gosh-darn earnestness dripping out of his every word. He is one-hundred-percent confident that a movie audience is going to find this story to be the funniest thing in the world. His dog certainly seems to think so. That moment shows that the dog is more than just a dog. It is what Harlan Pepper is using to cope with the loneliness of his life. Even the fact that he owns a Bassett hound feels exactly like the sort of dog he would have.
In Mascots, the characters are pretty much into “mascottery” (as it is called) because it is funny to see people in giant animal costumes. I never got the sense that any of these people were mascots because they WERE mascots. For example, Zach Woods and Sarah Baker play an unhappily married mascot team trying to keep their marital strife within their costumes. I am a fan of both of them and they are both hilarious here but much, much more could have been done with this idea. There is no real gradual buildup of tension in their relationship so that their inevitable explosion isn’t as funny as it should be. They just don’t have that much screen time in a ninety minute movie filled with hundreds of characters. Yet, because the performers are funny and the dialogue is improvised, there are plenty of nice small moments in their dialogue and interactions even if their overall arc is unsatisfying.

The other characters suffer from the same issue. Chris O’Dowd is a French-Canadian barroom brawler who channels his aggression into a giant fist costume. Christopher Moynihan is a lonely real estate appraiser who channels his insecurities into a plumber. Parker Posey uses her armadillo character as a spiritual vessel for interpretative dance. Tom Bennett is the latest in a long line of mascots and desperately wishes to impress his disapproving father (Jim Piddock, who also co-wrote with Guest) by executing a dangerous stunt that has never before been attempted. They are all fun ideas brought to life by funny people rather than just being funny people. O’Dowd’s character was brought up in a cult that worships the Michael Landon TV show Highway to Heaven. That’s a hilarious idea, but does it fit this character? Is Highway to Heaven driving the need to mascot somehow? It feels more like a bit that came up during a riff session that was too funny to ignore.

The mascots are brought together at a worldwide competition for the coveted Golden Fluffy Awards. I was surprised by how much time was spent on each of the individual mascot performances. Each is meticulously choreographed and technologically elaborate. They are, indeed, very delightful to watch. But they also take us away from the characters because they are encased within a massive costume (As well as from the actors who are most certainly not doing their own stunts). That hurts because this is supposed to be their moment of triumph that we have been building towards for the entire movie. We cannot see their emotional reality through the overly produced mascotting. These characters would not be amateurs so it makes sense for their routines to have a certain level of professionality but the human within the costume gets lost.

I think a big problem is that the actual competitors are not seen as the most important characters. Every character is seen as equally important and so we get a too few many scenes with the Golden Fluffy Awards staff, representatives from The Gluten Free Channel who are looking to buy the event for television, and various coaches and team owners. The positive side of this is that we get to see Michael Hitchcock and Don Lake having a heated exchange about Furries, Bob Balaban and Jennifer Coolidge as a sexually voracious married couple, Jane Lynch and Ed Begley Jr. as awards judges, and fan favorite Fred Willard as a character who exists so that Fred Willard can play him. Every single moment with every single one of these characters is hilarious, especially in a scene with Willard and the very funny Brad Williams. Even the announcer’s voice of the Golden Fluffies is funny because it is provided by none other than Harry Shearer. But they also divert us away from the core mascot characters and lessen the impact of their victories and their losses. There has been a lot of criticism that this movie is too “mean” towards its characters, probably because we don’t get to know them as well as we should. It’s possible that this movie may give you the feeling of telling a joke to somebody who you don’t know but kinda know and seeing their face wrinkle up in confusion before you realize that they didn’t think you were joking.

Ultimately, Mascots is a fun ride for the fact that it brings together so many funny people together and lets them do their thing. The goodwill that is generated from the Guest stock company is so much that you smile when you see just one of them in an insurance commercial or something. So any excuse to get as many of them as you can under one roof is a good one. But if you want the thrill and the pathos that made Spinal Tap, Guffman, and Best in Show so fulfilling, you should just quiet that little voice down and enjoy the funny. If you are still on the fence about hitting the “play” button on your Netflix screen, please count the number of times the words “funny” and “hilarious” appear in this review and then count the number of times the word “unsatisfying” appears.

NOTE: I almost completely forgot to mention that Guest cameos as Corky St. Clair, his character from Waiting for Guffman. Does this mean that there is a cinematic universe that connects all movies that Guest had a hand in? Can we start chasing that and have all the characters overlap in every film to the point where the actors have to play multiple roles in every movie so that they can riff with themselves?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swTWozTxQ-E

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