Christopher Guest is the undisputed king of the mockumentary. From co-writing This Is Spinal Tap to writing directing films like Waiting for Guffman and Best In Show—the zenith of his mockumentary features—Guest’s credentials are impeccable. His latest mockumentary, the first in ten years, is Mascots, which follows the lives and professional hopes of a group of odd ducks competing in a “sports mascotery” tournament. The film features some familiar faces: Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Michael Hitchcock, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, and Bob Balaban, but other Guest regulars like Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean, Eugene Levy, and Harry Shearer (present only in voice over) are absent.
In their place come a troupe of newbies including Chris O’Dowd and Tom Bennett—both veterans of Guest’s HBO comedy, Family Tree—and Zach Woods (Silicon Valley) and Sarah Baker, who was SO good as Vanessa on Louie. While they have their moments, Bennett and Woods especially, you really feel the absence of O’Hara, Levy, McKean, and Shearer. Mascots seems a little undercooked, and I wonder if it’s because Guest is missing his best collaborators.
The story unfolds in Best of Show format, with the first half of the film setting up the various people participating in the sports mascotery competition. (The way O’Dowd says “mascotery” in his Irish accent is nothing less than delightful.) As with all Christopher Guest mockumentaries, the characters are essentially good-hearted people who are hopelessly weird that are fanatically devoted to hyper-specific pastimes, but in the case of Mascots it feels like a case of diminishing returns.
It’s too reminiscent of Best In Show to really stand on its own, and it sort of feels like Guest is just going through the motions. Too much of it feels like a retread—Willard does the “incredulous casually bigoted dumb guy” routine he perfected in Show, and Guest even reprises Corky St. Clair for a small part as a mascot coach. But the biggest Show-Mascots connection is with the married couple played by Woods and Baker. Like the uptight yuppie couple played by Posey and Hitchcock in Show, Woods and Baker play a bickering couple who melt down under the stress of competition.
(But Woods’ end-montage plea for help is the funniest moment in the entire movie. Zach Woods has quietly become the most dependable utility man in comedy—he’s so good in these one-off scenes it begs the question: Is he legitimately best at this kind of drive-by comedy, or is it that lack of starring opportunities has shaped him into an MVP back-up? Someone give him ten episodes on a streaming platform and let’s find out.)
Mascots feels like Guest had an idea but no clear way to execute it. Given the energy and attention to detail in the actual mascot routines performed, he obviously wanted to film these comedy bits about weird mascots like “plumber with runaway turd” and “modern dance armadillo”, and I can see the individual routines becoming Youtube favorites because they really are brilliantly done, especially the “Sid the Hedgehog” vaudeville-style routine. Though I assume these routines were performed by professional dancers/stuntmen and not the actors themselves, which takes the shine off a little, as if professional musicians had stepped in to perform for Spinal Tap.
But it just doesn’t feel like the same amount of work went into the story. Some stuff is reasonably funny, like the director of the World Mascot Association being paranoid about furry infiltration, and some of the mascot costumes make for good visual gags—shout out to the giant fist with washboard abs—but none of the characters really land and none of the jokes are memorable. There’s a detached sense of boredom in Mascots, as if Guest himself is tired of his schtick.
Mascots is now available on Netflix.
Attached - Christopher Guest at the New York premiere of Mascots last week.