Two Drink Minimum is a comedy-based column by Vague Visages writer Jacob Oller.
Christopher Guest’s mockumentary style of comedy (seen in This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, and Waiting for Guffman) is at its best when it has an agape empathy for its oddball subjects. His newest, the Netflix movie Mascots, meets its professionally costumed cheerleaders with a dry stare and an embarrassed chuckle. Following multiple competitors as they compete in mascoting’s most prestigious competition, Guest’s film ambles uncomfortably under its furry facade.
It’s not that Guest has gotten mean or that these subjects are undeserving of the light fun-poking that most eccentrics endure. Rather, Guest doubles down on the sad mundanities of the the lives of people like the Babineauxes (Parker Posey and Susan Yeagley) or the Murrays (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker) without including the bloviations of ego that can be undercut by stupidity. When these people are already so sad, nice and humble, the awkward lingering on their stagnant maturities (why are all these adults mascots?) isn’t funny, it’s distressing.
While there’s some wit that you’d expect, especially from Guest regular Fred Willard as a possibly senile mascot coach, much of it is a testament to some of the actors that, in addition to being on Guest’s wavelength, also understood that this film was a place to be a bit more goofy than typical mockumentary stoicism. The film can go so long without a break for a joke or anything besides the blandness of tired dry repetition that an earnest and heartfelt performance by a hedgehog has to resuscitate the film. This good-natured slapstick of the Mr. Bean variety is the one spark of life in Mascots, but feels totally out of place in the movie Guest has constructed.
Some sub-SNL skit material like a TV show called Does This Smell Normal?, the Varicose Vein television network and multiple micropenis support organizations often give the comedy the timbre of a failed cable pilot. A bit weird, a bit offbeat, but without the sharpness needed to feel relevant or vital. It doesn’t help that the cannibalization of the mockumentary style by sitcom TV makes uninspired craft feel like it belongs to a particular medium, boxing it into a smaller-scale platform. Adding to this, without a distinct style or genre to parody, Guest’s aimless aesthetic errs towards the late episodes of The Office that did away with punchlines entirely to make way for more aching moments of confessional cringe.
There are countless violations of the law of funny names (basically, “funny” names aren’t) including Zook (drowsy Chris O’Dowd), Andy Dibble, Owen Golly, Jr. (pronounced Jolly which leads to a linguistic tangent going nowhere), and Corky St. Clair (played by Guest himself in a strange reprisal of his overly flamboyant Waiting for Guffman role). It’s all a bit too benign to be this slow and dry, even when fetishist furries (well, one) invade the competition or a dwarf plays straight-man to yet another scene of humor through ignorance. The static camera, set in its shot reverse-shot ways, meters out the narrative porridge at an innocuous pace.
All this is jarred out of its comfortable routine by the mascots’ performances — especially an air-guitaring human fist mascot. He’s the anthropomorphic animosity of stupid action movies and explosions that the film finally chooses to spit some venom at. The first inkling of sentiment or thesis comes at the very last performance, 10 minutes before the film ends.
With so many characters but no heroes or villains, it’s hard to figure out if viewers are meant to care about the final awards or not — things get boring because there’s hardly any direction at all. It’s a long extended sketch that is only contained and sustained by its contest framing device. When the real draw is the weird characters, why spend so much time on the actual proceedings of the competition?
Jamming its artistic support into the final few moments, Mascots just checks off boxes. When the confessional segments are so underwritten and fumblingly acted that they feel like an improv show where someone shouted “mascots” from the audience, you have to stop and wonder if that wasn’t how this film’s development started as well.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Chicago-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.