A perennial quirk of the humor business is that talented people so often seek laughs by masquerading as untalented people. Popular comedic actors seem addicted to the squirm-inducing antics of either blundering celebrities or deluded would-be artists.
The artisans of these comedies of humiliation tend to fall in two distinct camps that value improvisation over tightly written scripts. Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Jack Black and their pals skew young and loud to make huge hits of Anchorman and its unsubtle ilk. Meanwhile, more stealthily, writer/director Christopher Guest and his collaborators have established a droll, low-key franchise of improv comedies starting with 1996's Waiting for Guffman. Guest's latest, For Your Consideration, speaks softly compared to the cranked-up-to-11 silliness of Jack Black's Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny, but the two films occupy opposite sides of the same coin.
Guest's films rely not just on the same, ever-expanding cast of utility players, such as Parker Posey and co-writer Eugene Levy, but the same basic idea. In loose mockumentary fashion, he follows a clutch of clueless people unworthy of the public attention they seek, either through misguided notions of their talent or, in Best in Show (2000), through their dogs.
The Guest ensemble hits close to home in For Your Consideration by depicting low-level movie-industry drudges, all working on a ridiculous World War II-era drama called Home For Purim, where the dialogue awkwardly puts Yiddish slang in Southern drawls. An Internet rumor creates Oscar buzz around two dogged, disrespected character actors, Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara) and Victor Allen Miller (Harry Shearer), and wreaks havoc with the fragile on-set dynamic.
Unquestionably, Guest's films have a cheerful vibe, like parties for likable actors, and "The Office" co-creator Ricky Gervais makes a welcome addition as a sleazy film executive. But Consideration suffers from having so many tired characterizations, such as Jennifer Coolidge's airhead producer or John Michael Higgins' thick-skulled publicist, that Guest should have kept the cast list shorter. And while you can appreciate the loose, on-the-fly tone of his films, Consideration doesn't fully exploit the potential of inflating egos and hype-fueled hysteria.
Consideration at least has some plot, unlike its predecessor, A Mighty Wind, and includes some score-settling insights into the price of fame. As blundering "Entertainment Tonight"-style hosts, Fred Willard and Jane Lynch talk about themselves even more than the celebrities they're supposed to be interviewing, a perfect metaphor for the narcissistic facets of showbiz. Consideration ends up as a pointed Hollywood cautionary tale. In obscurity, Hack and Miller cling to their dignity, but once in the spotlight, they abandon all sense of shame.
Guest started with the faux-documentary style when he played guitarist Nigel Tufnel in Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap in 1984. Arguably, this generation's Spinal Tap is Jack Black and Kyle Gass's Tenacious D. The joke with "The D" is that they're a pair of posturing, pudgy white guys strumming acoustic guitars and thinking they're rock icons. Tenacious D's short-lived HBO series superbly established the duo as open-mic losers oblivious to their audience's indifference, with madcap Black and straight-faced Gass making a classic comedy team.
The joke within the joke of Tenacious D is that they kind of are rock icons, infusing tunes with names such as "Master Exploder" or "Kielbasa Sausage" with enough berserk showmanship to put "real" musicians to shame. Black toned down his scatting head-banger persona for the family-safe School of Rock (2003), but Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny unleashes the twosome's heavy-metal gestures and unlikely claims of their cocksmanship.
Like knights of yore, Black and Gass embark on a quest: to find a magic guitar pick made from the Devil's tooth so they can win a talent show and pay the rent. The Pick of Destiny should have everything going for it: Tarot-style animated titles, hilariously overblown anthems, amusing cameos from Sasquatch and Black's big-screen buddies, and lots of silly, rude humor. In the musical prologue, young "J.B." runs away from his music-hating father (played by Meat Loaf) to seek his fortune in Hollywood -- only he goes to every city of that name in the country before finally reaching California.
The first act works against Tenacious D's strengths, with Black playing abused apprentice to Gass' phony rock genius. Black has fewer opportunities to fly into hilarious fits of temper, like a live-action Tasmanian devil, while Gass, who's terrific with deadpan understatement, resorts to unnecessary mugging.
Watching Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny is like seeing a great live act diminished by feedback distortion. Movies such as South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut have set a high bar for raunchy musical comedies, but The Pick of Destiny aims disappointingly low. Director Liam Lynch, a frequent behind-the-scenes collaborator with Tenacious D, seems to have wanted to make a throwback to old Cheech and Chong movies -- there's even a superfluous car-chase scene. Lynch shows no command of making a movie musical; there are too many close-ups, too many cuts and the lip-synching is terrible. And not in the knowingly "fun-bad" way that ingenious comics such as Black, Gass or Guest can specialize in, either.