Mascots, Christopher Guest’s first mockumentary since A Mighty Wind (and first feature as a director since For Your Consideration), offers up an unwieldy cast of familiar Guest-ian buffoons: ditzes, prisses, ignoramuses, bickering couples, over-sharers oblivious to their own eccentricity. The formula is identical to Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind: same unseen but often addressed documentary crew; plenty of prop gags and improvised awkwardness; a big climactic to-do; mock-profile character introductions and a “Where are they now?” epilogue. But to anyone who’s seen the actor-director’s earlier forays into the genre—which is to say, to the target audience of Mascots, the latest Netflix production to bank on over-familiarity and nostalgia—the lack of quality control should be apparent. The only thing Mascots has to be is laugh-out-loud funny, and yet, most of the time, the only things it elicits are reflexive chuckles and a sense of creeping boredom.
One is inclined to chalk up some deficiencies (like the movie’s almost complete contempt for its characters) to the absence of longtime Guest company player Eugene Levy, who co-wrote the Guffman-Show-Wind trio and played some of its most affectionately drawn caricatures—or saddest, in the case of A Mighty Wind. The backdrop this time is the 8th World Mascot Association Championships, an international competition for part-time sports mascots held at a small convention center in Anaheim. The settings of Guest’s other mockumentaries have never been in and of themselves ridiculous, just ripe for spoofing: an over-produced small-town musical, a dog show, a reunion concert. But the Golden Fluffies, as the mascot awards are called, are the sort of idea that might have been a throwaway gag in one of his earlier films. (One can almost picture it as a framed photo and a participation ribbon on a mantle, being pointed out by some proud goofus to the camera crew.) And it’s not even that good of a joke.
As before, Guest starts by introducing the profilees, all hoping to take home the top prize with a showstopping routine: a henpecked philanderer (Zach Woods) and his abusive wife (Sarah Baker); a spacey Southerner (Parker Posey); a former cult member (Chris O’Dowd) who has found his calling as the controversial, hard-partying mascot of a small-town Canadian hockey team; a sad and creepy realtor (Christopher Moynihan); and an English “third generation mascot and butcher” (Tom Bennett) that the viewer knows they’re supposed to root for because he’s the dullest character. There aren’t straight men for these oddballs to bounce off of. The organizers, judges, and vendors of the mascot convention are just as high-strung and quirky as the competitors and their families. Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, which was the breakthrough for Guest and many of his regular collaborators, played off the awkwardness of real fly-on-the-wall rock docs, and Guffman was as much a parody of middling documentaries as anything else. But Mascots isn’t a knowing send-up of anything.
It doesn’t resemble a fake documentary so much as an homage to its director’s own greatest hits, recycling bits from earlier movies to diminished effect—a pathological laziness typified by the pointless inclusion of Guest’s Guffman character, Corky St. Clair, who returns here to wear funny outfits and nod approvingly in reaction shots. Sometimes these are cartoonish rehashes of earlier plot points; the Golden Fluffies, for instance, are hoping for a broadcast deal with the barely rated Gluten Free Channel in much the same way as Corky and the denizens of Blaine, Missouri were hoping for a Broadway big break in Guffman. And sometimes it’s just the same old, like Fred Willard playing the same clueless manager as he did in A Mighty Wind, but without the Mark McGrath makeover and nonsensical catchphrases. Though both Levy and the invaluable Catherine O’Hara are sorely missed, Mascots’ ensemble of veteran improvisers—including Guest favorites Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr., and Jane Lynch, who gets one of the better roles here as a smug minor celebrity of the mascot world—still have strong timing. It’s the material they’re working with that’s often undercooked or misjudged.
O’Dowd’s character, “The Fist,” who lives in an RV beside a Manitoba strip club and occasionally slips into the teachings of his Highway To Heaven-centered upbringing, is the funniest in conception, but gets the least to do. The rest are mostly saddled with pointless incidents, best exemplified by the sheer amount of time Mascots wastes on Bennett’s Owen Golly Jr. being pulled over driving on the wrong side of the road. The best gags here are the ones that are only on screen for seconds. (See: A vanity memoir titled A Moose-ing Grace: A Mascot’s Journey To God… And Success In Real Estate.) The rest mostly overstay their welcome, with all but one of the extended mascot routines that make up the climax quickly turning tedious. Ironically, the exception is the one that’s supposed to be boring everyone to sleep: a bizarre send-up of Laurie Anderson’s 1980s work that is shown only in small chunks, briefly showcasing Guest’s knack for musical parody.