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Strummin' and hummin'

A Mighty Wind recalls the sweater vest days of '60s folk rock

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Dressed in classic post-hippie soul patches and Birkenstocks with white knee socks, a bevy of middle-aged folk singers reflect on their glory days of guitar strumming and three-part harmony in Christopher Guest's mockumentary A Mighty Wind.

Guest, a pop archivist of ticky-tacky Americana, is slowly working his way through every bizarro subculture there is from the heavy metal heads of This is Spinal Tap to the hyperactive doggy freaks of Best in Show. Now Guest has tackled the weepy, lilting folksy set in this low-key comedy.

A Mighty Wind assembles a majority of the kooks from Best in Show and the glory days of "SCTV" Canadian cult comedy and follows the flaky, moderately drama-filled shenanigans as some over-the-hill '60s folkies prepare for a reunion at New York City's Town Hall. The hippies amble into Manhattan in their beat-up Volvos piled high with banjos, take their dulcimers out of mothballs and bury old hatchets as they reconvene for one glorious all-star hootenanny.

Favoring a more understated approach than Best in Show's all-out goof-apalooza, the film's tone is in keeping with its source material of earnest, cardigan-clad crooners like the Weavers and the Kingston Trio and arty songsters like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban) is the alpha male amidst these easy-going guitar pickers who uses the occasion of his folk promoter father's death to organize a tribute concert of dad's classic folk acts in a mere two weeks time.

There is some stress and friction to be sure, as the now gray-haired duos, trios and "neuftets" reconvene in mellow middle-age. Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) once set the folkie standard for soulful gazes as the industry's pre-eminent lovers until Mickey drove Mitch into a straightjacket. Mickey is now cozily shacked up with a British model-railroad enthusiast but finds old affections rekindled as the brain-dead Mitch strums and sings his way back into her heart.

Mitch & Mickey and the laid-back Folksmen trio (Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) are old-school folkies teamed with the thirty- and fortysomething "new" kids on the block for the reunion. The chipper, Pat Boone-on-crack New Main Street Singers take a break from the theme park circuit for the big reunion. The group, run like a military unit with enforced button-downs and pastels, is so relentlessly sunny, they even manage to put a perky gloss on the scabby streetwise and porn star pasts of their members.

The New Main Streeters' retro sweater vests and "Hee Haw" attitude are stage-managed by an über-sleazy South Florida handler (Fred Willard) in spiked hair and tanning-booth sheen who wants to bring newfangled additions to the act, like dousing the Main Street lady singers with water to provide a sexy finale to their act.

Unlike the vicious yuppies or flamboyant queens of Best in Show, Mighty Wind only gets slightly ludicrous when it trades in some mild potty humor, a long running joke about incontinence and the occasional sexual gag. As a whole the folkies -- with their fussbudget allergies and elaborate skin-care rituals in place of the usual hotel trashing and rock star orgies -- are the kind of mild-mannered middlebrows who make NPR execs salivate.

Guest is a natural mimic and has a great ear for infectious, hokey folk arrangements, with their cornpone lyrics and homespun protest anthems about "equality" and the Spanish Civil War.

His re-creation of the sunny Smothers Brothers poses, Maynard G. Krebbs beard growth and madras shirts of the folky album cover look is one of Mighty Wind's funniest bits. But that visual subtlety will not appeal to many looking for Best in Show-style outsized laughs. And much of the film's comedy is unfortunately threadbare, taking unfulfilling detours into characters and situations that never quite pan out, like the slick, duplicitous PR couple who basically confirm every preconception about slick, duplicitous PR people or a dopey segue into the New Main Street Singers' homegrown religion.

A Mighty Wind's brand of mild-mannered comedy may be too low-key for some, especially a pre-thirtysomething audience unfamiliar with the folk conventions Guest riffs on. But when today's comic high water mark is the demented spasticity and spit-take stylings of an Old School, it's nice to at least have some gentle, albeit stodgy, parody for contrast.

felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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