Breath of Fresh Air

'A Mighty Wind' is a sad, funny movie that's finely executed. Too bad it isn't longer.

Hurrah! It's almost time for the summer franchise films to start polluting our theaters like the decadent West pollutes the world with its pornography and secular humanism! I, for one, cannot wait to see American Pie 3: Sploogebomb and When Harry Met Batman.

However--and I note this as a good patriotic American who freedom kisses his girlfriend while she wears a freedom maid* outfit--there is a downside to films like Breastfest 2003 and Vin Diesel Kills and Eats Harry Potter. You see, they leave the hard-working film critic with little to do, as these movies would be better critiqued by a re-animated caveman who could just give the one-sentence "Gronk like shiny movie!" review that they so richly deserve.

Thus, while we wait out the remaining franchise-free weekends, we might want to check out a few of the films that were made by and for those who still have partial function in their cerebral cortices.

One such filmmaker who never ceases to delight those of us who are capable of chewing gum and watching Fox News at the same time is Christopher Guest, who, with his writing partner Eugene Levy and his cadre of like-minded improvisers, has given us such delights as Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman.

Like those films, A Mighty Wind is a mockumentary, this time taking on the folk music scene of the late '60s. It begins in 2002 with the death of Irv Steinbloom, former folk music impresario. His son, Jonathan, played by the ever-balding Bob Balaban, wants to organize a tribute concert with some of his father's most famous bands.

Unfortunately, the years have taken their toll, and the bands have either disbanded, or, much worse, reformed. In the latter category are The New Main Street Singers, a theme-park reincarnation of Steinbloom mainstays and Lawrence Welk regulars The Main Street Singers. In the former category are the age-worn Folksmen (played by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, better known as faux-metal band Spinal Tap) and the tragically separated Mitch and Mickey.

While The New Main Street Singers, who are most reminiscent of the Bush family with their vanilla exteriors and secret witchcraft and porn rituals (check out the Bohemian Grove if you think I'm kidding), provide a lot of the laughs, the real stars of this movie are Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara as the long disbanded folk duo Mitch and Mickey.

Their performances are almost indescribable, in that they're broadly comedic while at the same time painfully human and real. Former lovers, they broke up in the studio some 30 years earlier in a conflict that is never fully explained, except in the sparse, Rashomon-esque recollections of the brain-damaged protagonists.

This sense that there's much more going on than is presented on camera is what moves Mighty Wind from the category of funny movie into that of perfectly executed film. More than almost any movie I've ever seen, and in spite of its unnatural and unreal characters, Mighty Wind feels like it takes place in a real world. Lots of interactions, episodes and emotions are only hinted at, as though a complete history existed behind the people portrayed on screen. In fact, so much is hinted at, and so much of this movie is successful, that I would give it a criticism I can't ever recall giving to another film: A Mighty Wind is too short.

Reining himself into 90 minutes, it's clear that Guest had another, Oh, I don't know, 35 hours of good material here. In fact, the songs alone are entertaining enough to carry the film. Guest, McKean and Shearer wrote the Folksmen's songs, and Levy and O'Hara wrote the Mitch and Mickey numbers, which allowed for a real difference of sound between the two bands. And the songs aren't just funny; they're funny in a large part because they accurately portray the sound of American pop-folk from the late '60s. All the hooks, auto-harp, soaring harmonies and references to railroad trains are there, only slightly inverted so as to keep things from getting too Ian and Sylvia.

The rest of the cast comprises most of the Guest/Levy regulars, like Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, Fred Willard and, in an amazing turn as a Swede who speaks Yiddish, Ed Begley Jr. They're all too good to be true, and when I left the theater, it was like leaving a beautiful dream world where movies didn't suck and Keanu Reeves had never been born.

Part of this surreality has to do with Mighty Wind's ability to be both funny and tragic without ever being stupid or sappy. It's probably the saddest comedy you'll ever see, and if you don't leave the theater in strange mixture of laughter and tears, then you're the kind of inhuman monster who probably eats babies for breakfast.

* By the way, and I note this only reluctantly: Those of you who are busy substituting the word "freedom" for the word "French" in such constructions an "French fries/freedom fries" and "French toast/freedom toast" should note that "French" is an adjective and "freedom" is a noun. While I realize Americans enjoy looking stupid in front of the whole world, can we at least make some effort to speak our own language correctly?

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