The comedy of a Christopher Guest mockumentary comes from a simple formula: the mismatch between the remarkable self-assurance of the characters on whom each film focuses and the fundamental silliness and uselessness of the pastime to which these numbskulls have devoted themselves. Christopher Guest characters believe themselves to be the cream of the crop! But the crop is, like, kumquats. The folk musicians of A Mighty Wind and the dog trainers of Best in Show and the heavy-metal stars of This Is Spinal Tap believe themselves to be, and in many cases are, very, very good at their very, very foolish jobs. (Even in Waiting for Guffman, the citizens of Blaine, Missouri, are world-class in the foolish task of putting on a terrible community musical.)
In the Netflix original film Mascots, which begins streaming Thursday, Guest’s latest collection of dingbats and dreamers are devotees of the art of, as the goonish Tommy Zucarello (Chris O’Dowd) puts it, “sports mascotery.” The characters have assembled, oversized heads and all, at the World Mascot Championships in Anaheim, California. This is, without a doubt, the silliest pastime imaginable, and early in the film it seems that silliness might defeat the straight-faced passion with which Guest performers improvise their characters. (Indeed, for the first time I can recall, early in the film, an actor visibly breaks at the moronic thing said by her co-star.)
Who on Earth cares about mascots? Especially fake mascots for fake community-college and minor-league teams? But the mascots of Mascots aren’t only confident, they’re actually remarkably … great at mascotery! Although Mascots does not reach the emotional or comic peaks of earlier Guest films, it succeeds in the most unlikely task of all: making us believe that mascotting is a job worth taking seriously.
As always, the film’s loons and layabouts are played by a cavalcade of great comic improvisers (though many of the faces most familiar from earlier Guest movies are absent: no Catherine O’Hara, no Eugene Levy, no Harry Shearer). O’Dowd’s Zucarello is the Fist, a hockey mascot from Canada who’s currently serving six suspensions for instances of on-ice violence. (The Fist is, simply, an enormous fist on skates, though Christine Wada’s witty costume design also gives the Fist incongruous abs.) Parker Posey and Susan Yeagley play Cajun sisters devoted to exploring modern dance. The competition’s three judges are played, in broad comic strokes, by Ed Begley Jr., Jane Lynch, and Don Lake. Michael Hitchcock plays the event’s executive director, who is in a continual state of alarm about furries infiltrating his competition and humping the contestants.
At the center of the film are two married couples, one bitter, one loving. Zach Woods and Sarah Baker are Mike and Mindy Murray, suburban parents with a two-mascot act who are at each other’s throats. (She tends to undercut him; he tends to cheat on her.) Meanwhile, the sublime Tom Bennett, last seen as a daft nobleman in Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, plays Londoner Owen Golly Jr.; Kerry Godliman plays his kind wife, who defends Owen against his overbearing father (Jim Piddock), a former Sid the Hedgehog who’s unconvinced that his son knows what he’s doing.
These kinds of family units have served, in previous Guest movies, to provide antic comic high points (as in Posey and Hitchcock’s Busy Bee meltdowns in Best in Show) or surprising moments of emotional connection (as in the touching relationship between Mitch and Mickey in A Mighty Wind). Mascots finds the latter; the simple filial friction between Owen Gollys Jr. and Sr. culminates in a warm, rewarding scene that feels remarkably earned considering one person is wearing half of a hedgehog costume. But as gifted as both Woods and Baker are, it’s hard for them to find more than one note to play the Murrays’ mutual resentment and mistrust. (“My wife and I are doing this never-go-to-bed angry thing,” he confesses, “so I’m exhausted.”) Their final crack-up, on stage at the awards, comes as no surprise and isn’t as funny as it ought to be.
So the biggest laughs come, oddly, from the mascots themselves. The championship routines are mini-masterpieces of choreography, costuming, and dumb ideas: a huge-headed rabbi mascot pumps up the crowd; the Fist plays air guitar before a wall of flame; a plumber dances with the adorable turd he’s unclogged from a toilet. Best of all is Sid the Hedgehog’s act, an English music hall routine involving a football, a bigger football, and an even bigger football dangling above a ladder. I found myself holding my breath during its climax, wondering if Owen Golly Jr. could pull it off (and marveling that somehow Christopher Guest had). In the pantheon of Guest comic masterpieces, the goofy Mascots is determinedly minor-league. But like the bruschetta- and anchovy-scented cups sold at the event for male mascots to stuff into their costumes, it’s offbeat and refreshing nonetheless.