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A Mighty Wind

Those of us of a certain age may recall being in our parents' cars on the way to school, stuck in AM radio hell. Of course, we were young, and didn't really know better, so we thought that Peter, Paul & Mary were a really hip act. And really, they had good harmonies and were easy to sing along to…really. Come on, guys!

Okay, so nobody has been really clamoring for a revival of folk music, which for a short time in the sixties actually dominated the charts. Though Christopher Guest's latest "mockumentary," A Mighty Wind, pokes fun at the genre, it just might accidentally trigger a real revival. Provided, of course, that anybody actually goes to see it.

Warmer in tone than Guest's previous two improvised projects, Waiting For Guffman and Best in Show, this effort still has a skewed sense of humor, with brilliant improvised moments. Though it hits its spoofing target dead-on, it also meanders in a way that keeps it from being truly great.

In the wake of the death of a folk music impresario, his children organize an impromptu tribute concert. To do so, they have to reunite his most famous clients, Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), which wouldn't be a problem if Mitch hadn't had a spectacular meltdown in the mid-70's that left him barely functional.

Eager to jump on board and lend support are The New Main Street Singers, a descendant of The Main Street Singers, reduced to singing in open areas at amusement parks (a vague echo of Spinal Tap's spectacular freeform jazz odyssey show). Though the group still has a founder involved (Paul Dooley), the film quickly pushes him off to the side to focus on more outrageous members. And therein lies a serious problem.

Unlike Guest's previous efforts, this film is unwieldy in dealing with its cast of characters. The nominal leaders of The Main Street Singers Terry Bohner (John Michael Higgins) and his ex-pornstar wife Laurie (Jane Lynch) work overtime to be quirky and worthy of attention, while other characters pop up, barely register and then disappear without ever resolving their subplots.

This includes the expected main trio, The Folksmen. Played by Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, this musical act has been in their repertoire for almost twenty years. Yet they come across as the most underdeveloped. We see them sing, argue, and make peace, but we never quite understand what their group dynamics are, perhaps for fear of coming across as wussier incarnations of Spinal Tap.

They do have subtle jokes played about them. All of them suffer from hair loss, but deal with it in different ways. Unfortunately, Shearer's character has given over to total baldness, even makes references to it, but has obviously shaved his head for the role. There's 1 o'clock shadow, 5 o'clock shadow, and beyond.

On the plus side, Guest continues proving himself to be an extremely generous filmmaker to his fellow comedians. Collaborating with Levy on the film's structure, he gives the most attention to his co-writer's story arc, and it provides the real backbone.

In past films, Levy has made his mark as an outrageous character, but in A Mighty Wind he does a tremendous job of acting. Though Mitch is funny, there's something a little sad about him that the goofy punchlines just can't hide. In tandem with the seriously underrated O'Hara, he might move you to tears. Wisely, Guest allows the poignant moments to happen, suggesting a wider possibility for improvisation in film beyond wacky comedy.

Other standouts in the cast include Bob Balaban as the impresario's son, whose uptight upbringing quietly spins out of control as the movie progresses. Ed Begley, Jr. scores, too, as a Swedish public television executive desperate to prove his non-existent Jewishness.

To be honest, every performance is good; it's just that many end up going nowhere. However, a saving grace of the film is its exacting recreation of the folk movement. Some of the songs are funny because of their earnestness, and some because they sound like they could have played on radio in the sixties. Only the title song has a punchline that betrays itself; there's no way the singers could not be in on the joke.

Just as with This Is Spinal Tap, I walked out immediately wanting the soundtrack album. And that's not a bad reaction to have. A Mighty Wind doesn't blow; it's just not as strong as it might have been. Your parents, however, are going to love it, even if they don't know it's a joke.

What's It Worth? $6.50

Derek McCaw

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