`Guffman' Skewers The Untalented And Clueless

April 25, 1997|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

In its 150-year history, the town of Blaine, Mo., has managed precisely two accomplishments. First, Blaine became the "Stool Capital of the World." Second, Blaine was the first site on Earth to be visited by a UFO, an event that led to a community potluck dinner aboard a space ship.

Blainites do not regard these happenings ironically but with reverence. Their faces convey the uncritical blankness of Dr. Seuss characters. Blainites are not exactly well-endowed in the intellect department.

And that makes them easy pickings for Christopher Guest, one of the creators of the brilliant 1983 "rockumentary" "This Is Spinal Tap," who now turns his satiric camera onto phlegmatic Blaine. To celebrate their august past, Blainites put on a sesquicentennial musical, "Red, White and Blaine," a ludicrous extravaganza, whose creation and production is the consistently funny focus of "Waiting for Guffman."

Like "Spinal Tap," "Guffman" explores to hilarious effect the self-inflation of hopelessly talentless "artistes," this time following a mythical community theater troupe suffering visions of grandeur.

Guest, "Guffman's" director, co-writer and star, uses "Spinal Tap's" same documentary technique. In their "interviews," none of the townsfolk displays a trace of self-awareness. All are convinced that they are being enlightening and endlessly charming. As dentist-turned-thespian Allan Pearl, Eugene Levy, who also co-wrote "Guffman," discusses his comic gifts. He wasn't the class clown in high school, he confides, but he did sit next to one. "I studied him," he says seriously.

The other "actors" are no less self-involved. Parker Posey is Libby Mae Brown, a Dairy Queen counter girl who comes from the cheerleading school of acting. Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara) are owners of a travel agency who have never been out of town. Recognized as the "Lunts" of Blaine, they conduct themselves as theatrical royalty, condescending to other cast members and spouting forth about dramatic technique. "The ultimate goal," Ron allows, "is Hollywood."

Their director is Guest's Corky St. Clair, a buffoon treated with awe by townspeople because of his experience "off-off-off-off Broadway," which probably put him in the vicinity of Camden. Only one person comes close to Corky's array of talents, gushes one town councilman, "And that's Barbra Streisand."

As played by Guest, Corky is wildly, flamboyantly, profoundly gay. He dresses like the genie in "Aladdin," has more than a passing knowledge of pantyhose and depilatories, and can't resist casting a strapping garage mechanic despite the boy's protestations that "I'm not much of an actor."

Only the high school musical director, played with almost no affect by Bob Balaban (the NBC executive on "Seinfeld"), seems to have any idea that Corky is hot air. With the slight widening of his eyes, the merest cocking of his head or a pause in a gesture, Balaban is able to express his grave misgivings. But he's far too repressed to stand up to Corky's exuberance. In the end, he suffers from the same self-inflation as everyone else in the show.

Luckily, in Blaine, no one will burst any of their bubbles. Their audience watches the musical with open-mouthed appreciation as the troupe clunkily reprises the town's seminal moments in such numbers as "Nothing Ever Happens on Mars," sung by one of the visiting aliens.

The Guffman of the title is a Godot-esque creation, a big-time producer who supposedly is coming to watch the show. Naturally, the cast believes they are destined for Broadway.

"Guffman" itself never suffers such pretensions. It doesn't presume great dramatic arc or insight. It is a series of sketch pieces from superb sketch performers. It may lack the bite of "Spinal Tap," but it charms with its affection for the fools who so completely fall under their own spells.

`Waiting for Guffman'

Starring Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara

Directed by Christopher Guest

Released by Castle Rock

Rating R (adult humor)

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 4/25/97

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