Waiting for Guffman
directed by Christopher Guest
(Warner Bros., 1996)

"Bumpkus ever happens in Blaine," says one small-town resident of a tiny Missouri burg. But it is Blaine's 150th anniversary and the town will, by golly, make something happen.

"We're a can-do people," says sky-blue-suited mayor Glenn Welsch, a champion booster floating in a sea of boosterism. And even the town's newcomer, Corky St. Clair, agrees. He's a refugee from the theater life of Broadway (though it's never really apparent what he did), and he volunteers to whip up a community theater tribute to town founder Blaine Fabin using just some spit and polish and the talent he can find walking down the street. And as any fan of community theater knows, the results can be wildly unpredictable.

It's not Waiting for Godot, and comedians Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy are no Samuel Beckett. They are not masters of existentialism, but of goofy, offbeat improv-style comedies like Waiting for Guffman. There is, of course, 1984's classic This Is Spinal Tap, created by the same inspired foolishness, and Waiting for Guffman does an admirable, often insanely funny job of living up to its pedigree.

This 1996 story of a town putting on a birthday pageant for itself is one of those oddball movies that, if you're easily offended or particularly defensive about small-town life, you'll find less than funny -- even though the humor, for the most part, is affectionate, its accuracy may not always be appreciated. Blaine also is a town that finds nothing untoward or off-color in its proud claim of being the "Stool Capital of the World," thanks to the big industry there spawned by a whistle-stop visit by President McKinley. Blain finds inordinate pride in being the first United States town visited by beings from outer space -- in 1946, a full year ahead of that upstart Roswell, N.M. Why, here, townsfolk actually went onboard the craft for a potluck dinner -- and some medical probing, but that's a whole other hilarious "interview."

Blaine, you see, is full of people ready to be interviewed in the mockumentary style Guest and Levy most recently used in Best in Show. The town, like many small towns, even has a real, live descendant of its founder, one Gwen Fabin-Blunt, who confesses being a Fabin gives her a certain notoriety. "It's not always easy," she says solemnly. "I can certainly understand how the Kennedys feel."

Once Corky gets the go-ahead from town fathers, he's off and running. In auditions at the local school, he's faced with his talent pool: A belly dancer. The Albertsons, known as "The Lunts of Blaine," who pop up in every community theater production Corky directs. Their audition alone, singing "Midnight at the Oasis" while dressed in matching track suits, is worth the price of the rental. As is Dr. Allan Pearl's "singing." The town dentist, encouraged by his wife to try out, ends up as the town namesake. And Levy, thick-spectacled and ultra-serious, makes the most of a medical man who thinks theater may be his real calling.

And that's what's endearing about this cast, this town: There is a big-hearted belief that a well-meaning effort may push them to an opening night on the Great White Way. That would come courtesy of Guffman, a big-time producer who promises to come check out their efforts.

It's impossible to pick out just a few great moments. Corky playing with his My Dinner With Andre action figures comes close, as do interviews with local Dairy Queen attendant Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey). So, while "bumpkus ever happens in Blaine," this gem of a video, with brilliant lyrics by Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, is something to brighten even the bleakest Missouri winter.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 21 October 2001

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