The latest big-screen veteran to embrace the appealing security of a Netflix Original deal, Christopher Guest casts a gently mocking eye over the eccentric subculture of sports mascots in his new but familiar-feeling ensemble comedy Mascots. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival ahead of its launch on the streaming platform next month, this warm-hearted ensemble piece is vintage Guest in format, combining fake documentary elements with more conventional dramatic scenes. The cast is crowded with old and new faces, all improvising deadpan gags and goofy characters around a loose narrative spine.
Lightweight, familiar fare from the mockumentary master.
Now 68, Guest has never been a major box-office draw, but he remains respected and influential. His methods helped inspire an army of younger acolytes, largely thanks to the cult 1984 classic This Is Spinal Tap, which defined the “mockumentary” genre (a term Guest personally disdains). His famous fans include Ricky Gervais and Veep creator Armando Iannucci, and Mascots draws on a similar but milder strain of observational humor, poking fun at awkward social misfits with strange habits but minimal self-awareness. Indeed, sometime Gervais collaborator Tom Bennett has a main role here as an English football mascot.
A whole decade has passed since Guest launched his previous feature in Toronto, the hit-and-miss Oscar-season satire For Your Consideration. But he has not been idle in the interim. One of his recent projects was the short-lived HBO series Family Tree, which only survived one season, but helped sow the seeds of Mascots. The TV show’s British co-creator Jim Piddock first pitched the idea of a sports-mascot comedy to Guest, while the Irish comic actor Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, St. Vincent) appears in both.
Mascots reunites many of the usual suspects from Guest’s repertory company including Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban, Fred Willard and John Michael Higgins. But conspicuous by their absence this time are his former Spinal Tap cohorts Harry Shearer and Michael McKean. Also missing are regular co-writer and co-star Eugene Levy, and nervy comic virtuoso Catherine O’Hara, perhaps because both are busy with their commitments to the Canadian TV comedy Schitt’s Creek. Their wild, dysfunctional energy might have added some much-needed spice to this lightweight farce.
That said, there are some great standout performances in Mascots. Posey and Susan Yeagley make a fine double act as sassy bleach-blonde Southern belles whose armadillo-themed mascot routine is a gloriously incongruous modern dance piece. O’Dowd also excels as the Irish-Canadian “bad boy of sports mascottery,” a rebellious stoner known for his giant fist costume and his record of inappropriate sexual behavior at hockey games. Perhaps it is no surprise that the castmembers with most serious dramatic chops give the best performances, fleshing out their cartoonish grotesques with faint grace notes of authentic human angst. Guest himself makes a brief and superfluous appearance as Corky St. Clair, a lispingly camp and oddly dated caricature.
In common with all of Guest’s self-directed work, Mascots is essentially a whimsical celebration of human eccentricity, which is sweet at first but corny over the long haul. The director shapes all his films in the edit, sometimes taking a whole year to tease out the best takes as he trims around 80 hours of material down to a crisp 90 minutes or so. This painstaking patchwork process is good at producing snappy comic vignettes, but fatal to narrative drive. The weakest section of Mascots is the middle half-hour, between the zingy introductory skits and the climactic competition. A cluster of minor scandals and labored misunderstandings in the second act feel like contrivances, diluting the comedy without deepening the drama.
Guest finds his mojo again in the competition scenes, an expertly choreographed riot of breakdancing turds, Chaplinesque physical slapstick and heavy-metal pyrotechnics. This lively finale comes as a relief after a build-up featuring more modest giggles than big belly laughs. Familiar and formulaic, Mascots adds up to an amiable evening of Netflix and chill. But in Spinal Tap terms, it certainly does not go up to 11.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Production company-distributor: Netflix
Cast: Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Tom Bennett, Chris O’Dowd, Susan Yeagley, Fred Willard, Ed Begley Jr., Christopher Moynihan, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge, Jim Piddock, John Michael Higgins
Producers: Karen Murphy, Ted Sarandos
Cinematographer: Kris Kachikis
Editor: Andrew Dickler
Music: C.J. Vanston
Casting director: David Rubin
Not rated, 89 minutes