Everything I disliked about Christopher Guest's latest, For Your Consideration, is summed up in the name he's given to his main female character.
Everything I loved about Catherine O'Hara's portrayal of Marilyn is summed up in the way she says her name the first time.
Marilyn arrives at the studio where she's starring in a low-budget independent film called, Home for Purim and, checking in with the guard at the gate, she identifies herself with just her last name. "Hack," she says, and O'Hara hits the word a trifle too hard.
There's a world of self-loathing in the sharpness with which she says it and then in the quick correction, the quieter, apologetic, softened to almost a whisper, "Marilyn Hack." It's as if Marilyn is rendering a judgment on herself. "I'm a hack." Sigh. "And a nobody."
Even though she is going to work playing the lead in a movie, Marilyn Hack is not a happy camper. This is just another acting job as far as she's concerned, and over time she has come define job as "a wasted effort into which I will pour all my talent and energy only to be personally and professionally disappointed yet again with the result. No one will reward me for what I do. Nothing will come of it. No matter how good I am in the part, the next time out will be like starting all over again. I wish I could give it all up, but I can't, because I can't help hoping that this time it will be different."
She is pushing fifty, the character she's playing is pushing sixty, and she's terrified that this is it, the end of the line.
We learn later on that Marilyn began her movie career with a splash, winning acclaim for playing a blind prostitute in a movie that is still remembered because it made somebody else's career—think of Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Elizabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas. Where are they now? Where they'll be in ten years might be where Marilyn is as she sits in her car at the studio gate, hating herself.
It gets worse for her. The guard "recognizes" her. He mistakes her for someone else. He gets excited remembering "her" in a prison movie in which "she" played a sadistic warden and thus accidentally torments her with her own worst nightmare.
Prison movies. The hack actor's last stop before guest starring on Love Boat.
Marilyn responds with good grace. Responding with good grace has become her trademark and solace. Throughout the first quarter of the movie, Marilyn plays the lady of the manor with all the "help," the lower-ranking members of the cast and crew, unconsciously having decided that if she can't be famous for her acting, she will be famous among actors and others for her professionalism.
Her graciousness, which appears to be a virtue, is actually a sign of her vanity. Marilyn's tragic flaw is that in her heart of hearts she thinks of herself as the star she set out to be.
O'Hara plays Marilyn as a tragic figure—there's nothing incongruous about a character in a comedy being essentially tragic. In many of the best comedies we're laughing because our only other choice is to weep.—for about half the movie.
Then she lets Guest turn her into a clown.
I say she lets him do this because of the amount of improvisation that goes into the making of Guest's movies. O'Hara collaborated in making Marilyn ridiculous, which is nowheres near the same thing as funny.
Guest clearly decided that Marilyn Hack is a hack, that she has had the kind of career she has deserved and that she is a fool for allowing her head to be turned by a rumor that her performance in "Home for Purim" will earn her an Oscar nomination.
In Guest's judgment, she should know herself and her limitations better than that and because she doesn't she should be punished.
He punishes Harry Shearer's leading man, Victor Allen Miller, an actor who is universally regarded as having had a distinguished career, despite the fact that his only important credit appears to be Irv the Foot Long Weiner in a series of hot dog commercials, and Parker Posey's starlet, Callie Webb, who decides that her role in "Home For Purim" will be her breakthrough performance and milks it accordingly, when each of them comes unglued at the news that they too might be up for Oscar nominations.
Guest isn't as hard on them, though, as he is on Marilyn, whom he isn't content to have act like a clown, he makes her look like one too. Thinking her career is about to be revived, Marilyn wants it to be revived at the point when it flagged, when she was around thirty. She goes out for some botox and collagen treatments and comes back with a frozen mask for a face that makes her look like Bozo in drag.
And she's oblivious to the effect. She thinks she looks great.
It's not funny. It's cruel.
But then Guest has always flirted with a theater of emotional cruelty in his movies.
Most satire works by ridiculing people for their vices. From This is Spinal Tap on through Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and now For Your Consideration, Guest has made fun of people for their vanities. I haven't seen A Mighty Wind, but just the title suggests he's up to the same thing in that one. The protest music of the aging folk singers amounting to nothing more than a mighty wind, which makes the musicians themselves a bunch of blowhards, but then all is vanity, vanity, and seeking after wind.
Spinal Tap was directed by Rob Reiner, not Guest, but it set the standard.
Guest has specialized in showing up the ways his characters think too highly of themselves, for being celebrities in their own minds. In the case of the members of Spinal Tap, they are—were—celebrities, but they are mocked for thinking that their celebrity was due to their musical genius and for thinking their reunion will matter, artistically, and culturally, the way a reunion of The Beatles would have.
In Guffman and Best in Show, Guest mocks his characters for their vanity but he does it gently, he even forgives them for it, because he admires what they do.
The community theater types in Waiting for Guffman are extremely minor talents, and of course it's foolish for all of them to think that they're cheesy history pageant will make them stars outside their little town, but they do bring some art and culture and joy to their town, all good things, and they love the theatre, and Guest can't blame them for that.
And the dog owners in Best in Show know their dogs, and their dogs are special. The amount of time, energy, money, ambition, and pride they put into showing their dogs is ridiculous to contemplate, especially when you think of all the more worthwhile things they could be working this hard at. But then you could say that about all art, and when you watch the show you can see that there is something essentially artistic at work and the effect has a kind of beauty that isn't at all trivial. That's why the comedy in the final scenes is all in Fred Willard's absurdly inane and clueless commentary and Eugene Levy's two left feet, and not in the dogs or the real handlers themselves.
But with For Your Consideration Guest crosses a line.
I'm not sure why he did it, unless he thought he had to remind his fellow actors and filmmakers that the point should always be the work, never the awards or the celebrity—the rumor that someone in the cast is going to get an Oscar nod turns out to be true, but there's a catch that underscores the idea that it's all about the work—but it would have been far less mean of him if he'd either sympathized more with his characters' pipe dreams or if he'd made those dreams more realistic, that is, if the characters were already somewhat famous and For Your Consideration was a This Is Spinal Tap gone Hollywood.
Instead, he seems to be making fun of his small-time characters not for having outsized dreams but for being small-timers to begin with.
There's some funny stuff in For Your Consideration. The movie within a movie, "Home for Purim," is about a Jewish family in the South who emote and posture and spout fake poetry as if in the worst sort of Tennessee Williams-inspired Southern gothic domestic tragedy while punctuating their overwrought speeches with drawled out Yiddishisms. There is a brilliant parody of the late night talk shows that conflates the best and worst of Conan, Leno, and Letterman all in one terrific cameo by Craig Bierko, who played Carrie's jazz musician boyfriend in one of my favorite episodes of Sex and the City. The send up of Paul Shaffer and his band is priceless. And Fred Willard has to be seen and heard to be believed, except that you can't believe you heard him right, because nobody human could be that out of touch with normal modes of discourse and the actual meaning of words.
The acting is generally excellent, although I'm getting tired of Jennifer Coolidge's too stupid to breathe without reminding schtick. O'Hara is great, as I said, for about half the film. Shearer delivers a nicely understated performance as a man whose vain desire to please makes him too good a sport, to the detriment of his own career. John Michael Higgins as a totally clueless but somehow still effective publicist, Ed Begley Jr as the make-up man who is Marilyn's one true fan and only real friend, and Eugene Levy as Shearer's terminally distracted agent are among the best, possibly because their characters are exempted from Guest's contempt. And Ricky Gervais breezes in and makes himself perfectly at home among Guest's regular rep company, fitting in as if he'd been there from the start. A good thing too. They need some younger blood. The core of the company is getting a little long in the tooth. The antics of one pantaloon can be funny. An entire cast of AARP members making fools of themselves is just too sad.
For Your Consideration. Directed by Christopher Guest. Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. Starring Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, Christopher Moynihan, Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Coolidge, Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, John Michael Higgins, Bob Balaban, Michael McKean, and Jane Lynch. Warner Independent Pictures. 2006.