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A Mighty Wind

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: A Mighty Wind

Starring: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy
Director: Christoper Guest
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 87 Minutes
Release Date: April 2003
Genres: Comedy, Documentary

*Also starring: Michael McKean, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., John Michael Higgins, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

P> Only the most naive of Americans could have hoped that the folk song era would stretch on into the 21st century. How unfortunate. During the sixties and, when the protest songs of Tom Lehrer and Pete Seeger and others were added, the seventies, folk singing held the attention of America's youth, particularly in high schools and colleges throughout the land. This was the era of the flower people, of communal living, of the peace symbol, of "This Land Is Your Land, This Land is My Land," and love love love. All of this came to a close during the mid seventies. Folk became the folk rock made popular by Bob Dylan which either evolved or surrendered to rock, acid rock, punk rock, grunge, and today's hip-hop. Absent a Vietnam War, who knows whether this phenomenon would have survived--of New Yorkers crowding into Washington Square on Sundays to hear a variety of guitarists and banjo players, and into night clubs like The Bitter End where Woody Allen's career began to take off and audiences were invited to Tuesday hootenannies where anyone could get a chance to entertain an audience. Who knows where the next Joan Baez might emerge?

Since folk singing symbolized America at its most innocent and sharing, who would have the chutzpah to satirize its musicians? Leave it to Christopher Guest, whose satirical take in "A Mighty Wind" is anything but the sort of movie that the edgy 19th Century satirist, Jonathan Swift, would endorse. "A Mighty Wind" is so gentle in its comedy, so loving toward the mostly neurotic figures who are being gently lampooned, that the film itself is a mirror of those lovely, bygone days that saw American urbanites actually digging songs dedicated to railroad workers, farmers, and weavers. Guest, whose "Best in Show" utilized many of the performers that comprise his present ensemble in a mockumentary about assorted idiosyncratic characters who have entered their pets in a prestigious dog show, had the flat-out belly laughs that his present movie lacks. After all "Best in Show" was, in my opinion, the funniest comedy of 2000. Instead, we get the gifted writer-director's application of dry humor, this time digging deeper into the characters he loves so much. There isn't a mean bone in the satirist's body.

Though the film was written by Guest together with a co-writer, Eugene Levy (both of whom with major roles in the film), the dialogue has the feel of improvisation, but the kind of improv that the director must have refined by having his ensemble try out different shticks over and over until they got it right. What motivates the story is the death of major folk promoter Irving Steinbloom at the age of 83, like the others a fictitious character who probably stands in for a real person. Steinbloom's son Jonathan (Bob Balaban whose neuroses make his character the funniest of the lot) wants to organize a memorial concert by bringing back the greats of the sixties. The diverse lot includes Mark Shubb (Christopher Guest), Jerry Palter (Michael McKean) and Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard) as a guitar-banjo-bass trio; Mickey and Mitch (Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy) as a duo who in real life broke up, breaking Mitch's heart, and who had not spoken to each other in a couple of decades and who, in rehearsal, cannot deliver the kiss that was the highlight of one of their romantic ballads; and Lars (Ed Begley Jr.), a Swedish- American TV executive who plays up to Steinbloom by inflecting his speech with a flurry of Yiddish words.

Guest's trajectory is much like Jim Brown's in his seventy-eight minute 1982 documentary "The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time!" about a reunion of a folk quartet of the 1940's and 1950's which dealt with the reunion of the group, climaxing in their Carnegie Hall concert. With just weeks to rehearsals, Steinbloom assembles the stars of the sixties: The Main Street Singers, who like The Kingston Trio present themselves as so joyful they could be a tooth paste commercial; The Folksmen, who are a trio whose comic turns come most from the basso profundo member, Alan Burrows (Harry Shearer); and Mitch and Mickey, composed of an emotionally healthy Mickey, married to a manufacturer of bladder control equipment, who plays with a model railroad at night; and a highly neurotic Mitch, a former patient in a psychiatric hospital, who may have wound up there because of his traumatic breakup with Mickey.

To my amazement, these guys can not only improvise effective comic sketches but can really harmonize! In fact given the overflowing output of dry humor in every scene, one might be tempted to say, "Stop clowning, already, and perform the songs! (especially if like me you were a folk enthusiast in the sixties). According to the excellent reviews that have come in for the film, some people laughed out loud throughout, others had the occasional giggle. I'm in the latter group (which surprised me because I consider myself a major fan of deadpan humor). Perhaps because this movie, however deeper in character exploration than "Best in Show" does not match up to that spoof of the annual Westminster competition, I would have to rate this B+.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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