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Amateur Nights

Waiting for Guffman
Way Off-Broadway: Christopher Guest's Corky St. Clair leads a troupe of thespian hopefuls in his new comedy.

Christopher Guest makes genial fun of stage dreams in 'Waiting for Guffman'

By Richard von Busack

THERE'S SOMETHING about the fluffy bangs on Christopher Guest's head that makes him look like a refugee from the Middle Ages. In Waiting for Guffman, he seems to be parodying great moments in medieval history. Having stomped out of a rehearsal of a highly amateur theatrical production, Guest's Corky St. Clair is persuaded to come back and direct once more. St. Clair sits and listens to his cast, deciding whether he'll deign to lend these actors his talents.

Self-regard and intellectual weakness battle across his face, which he holds regally. It's like a scene of King John receiving his barons in a Robin Hood movie. In another moment, as he contemplates the theatrical glory that will be his some fine day, the light in Corky's eyes makes you think of an El Greco painting, a martyr going to the stake for all of the wrong reasons.

Corky is sort of a martyr to the theater. He had been involved with a few off-off-off-off-Broadway productions before relocating. He is now a middle-aged drama teacher in the town of Blaine, Mo., "a little town with heart in the heart of a big country." Blaine, footstool capital of the world, is preparing to celebrate its 150th anniversary, and Corky rounds up a local cast for a show titled "Red, White and Blaine."

Among the wooden-legged dancers and cracked-voiced singers who show up are Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard as Sheila and Ron, Blaine's first family of little theater (and very grand they are, though the couple have sexual problems that they insufficiently conceal).

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Richard von Busack interviews 'Waiting for Guffman'
star Fred Willard.

Plus, the official site for the movie.

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Co-writer Eugene Levy plays a dentist with comic timing so wrong that it's somehow right, and Parker Posey, wearing iridescent eye shadow, shows up as an ice cream counterperson. Amid these superb comic talents, Posey holds her own. With her face slack, a wad of gum in her mouth and her reactions slowed to the rhythms of a not-so-bright girl, an awkward Posey is even more charming than an urbane Posey. You feel rather protective of her.

The Guffman of the title is a New York talent scout who claims he will come watch the pageant. He is, as you'll guess, about as punctual as Godot. Even if you're ahead of that plot device, you won't care. This is a great comedy, rich in details and with a sense of lived-in characters. Waiting for Guffman, for instance, seems more knowing about what it's like to be gay in a small town than Sling Blade.

Anyone who's chafed through bad amateur theater will whoop with laughter, but Guest (most famous for his membership in Spinal Tap) has also managed to make the characters sweet in their delusion, saving his contempt for bigger-budget bores, especially in some devastating last-minute gags over the end credits. How to skewer human pretensions without looking like you're stabbing the human spirit? In this hilarious, captivating film, Guest treads that thin line and never crosses over.


Waiting for Guffman (R; 84 min.), directed by Christopher Guest, written by Eugene Levy and Guest, photographed by Roberto Schaefer and starring Guest and Fred Willard.

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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