Few things in cinema have been as reliably funny as watching Christopher Guest assemble his de facto repertory company and bring to life the misfits and malcontents who make up some small, odd corner of the universe.
But after a string of loopy comic gems that included 1997’s “Waiting for Guffman,” 2000’s “Best in Show,” 2003’s “A Mighty Wind” and 2006’s “For Your Consideration,” Guest didn’t direct another one of those films for a decade, which made Saturday’s 8:30 a.m. screening of his new “Mascots” at the Toronto Film Festival worth an early wake-up call.
This time, his film is set in the world of sports mascots — but we’re not talking about icons like the Phillie Phanatic or the San Diego Chicken. Instead, these are small-market, semi-pro mascots for community colleges or minor league teams, whose dreams of glory are all tied to the World Mascot Association’s Gold Fluffy Awards, the presentation of which serves as the film’s centerpiece.
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If you’re a fan of Guest’s films, that description is probably enough to win you over, or at least get you to stream “Mascots” when it debuts on Netflix in October.
And if you’re a Guest fan, you know what you’ll be getting with this film. Characters will talk into the camera about their dreams and aspirations, often lying and almost always revealing far more than they intend. Ed Begley Jr. (earnest), Jane Lynch (hostile) and Fred Willard (clueless) will show up and be funny, and so will Parker Posey, Bob Balaban and Jennifer Coolidge.
And on first viewing, the whole thing will feel gentle and understated and maybe even slight. But then you realize that on first viewing, Guest’s other films felt slight, too — until you found yourself watching them over and over on cable TV, slowly realizing just how much comic genius was buried in those casual, improvised scenes.
(OK, maybe you didn’t watch them over and over. But I sure did.)
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“Mascots” isn’t a revelation or a new high-water mark for Guest — but it is a demonstration of how good he is at this kind of stuff, sometimes as warm and fuzzy as some of the mascots’ uniforms and often as twisted as the warped but well-meaning characters who put those uniforms on.
The film has its share of classic lines: One immediate favorite is Begley’s “I stay away from terms like ‘micro-penis’ — I’m phallically challenged.” But there will be more. The film’s greatest pleasure, though, may lie in seeing how well a few newcomers fit into Guest’s world: Zach Woods (“Silicon Valley”) and Sarah Baker are hysterical as a married couple whose mascot routines and pasted-on grins can’t hide their loathing for each other, while Chris O’Dowd seamlessly meshes with the aesthetic as a hockey mascot with some serious anger issues.
And the film’s climax, with an array of staggering mascot performances, ups the bar on Guest’s physical humor and makes this a worthy addition to his catalog of mild-mannered but wicked explorations of the foibles and flaws that define us all.
I can’t wait to see it again.