Christopher Guest’s previous comedies, which have included Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, might have gently lampooned their subjects, but always did so with a sense of affection. Everybody knows someone a little too into theatre or dogs, but we also recognise that there’s a little bit of us in Corky St. Clair or Cookie Fleck. The target in MASCOTS are the titular foam-clad spruikers of team morale, a group that is silly by their very definition. Yet Guest and co-writer Jim Piddock (Family Tree) seem to have forgotten the fine balance that sits between laughs and reality, rejecting pathos for uninspired parody.
Using the same mockumentary formula he has almost exclusive played in since 1997’s Guffman, a tradition starting with Rob Reiner’s 1984 exemplar This Is Spinal Tap, this latest outing doesn’t do much to shake things up. In this instance, several mascots gather for the World Mascot Association championship’s Gold Fluffy Award, and awkward hilarity ensues.
In earlier outings, such as the thematically similar Best in Show, much of the comedy came from the scale of the subject being disproprtionate to the importance society at large places on it. In that film, massive sponsors and intense owners let any ridiculousness reveal itself to a non-judgmental camera. With MASCOTS, both Guest and his cast seem intent on finding something to mock about a group that was never meant to be taken seriously in the first place. A force-fed sidebar about furries gives it a slightly more mean-spirited edge, but the biggest crime that the film commits in trying to find this angle is forgetting to make it funny.
The cast are very much going through the motions, with the majority of faces familiar from Guest’s work. There’s an interesting dynamic set up between the avant garde Cindi Babineaux (Parker Posey) and her sister Laci (Susan Yeagley), but despite some sexual tension set up between the two of them and Mike Murray (Silicon Valley‘s Zach Woods), the narrative never really goes anywhere. This is true for all of the stories to a certain extent. A conversation between sponsor Greg Gammons, Jr. (Fred Willard) and achondroplasic Ron ‘The Worm’ Trippman (Brad Williams) is as uncomfortable as it sounds. It’s really only the UK crew – consisting of affable Tom Bennett, the reliably surly Chris O’Dowd, co-writer Piddock and Kerry Godliman (Derek) – that give us any reason to care about the characters at all. Everything else around them, from the lacklustre show pieces to the documentary asides, simply feels hollow and perfunctory.
While comedies and mockumentaries have changed over the years, Guest has stood resolutely still. In an age when the genre has been given a nastier edge by the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen, or wanders into absurdism with 2014’s What We Do In The Shadows, we should be at least partially thankful that this kind of comedy still wants to exist in the world. Yet the experience is encapsulated perfectly by a brief cameo from Guest himself, reprising his role as Guffman‘s Corky St. Clair: the trappings are familiar, but this is more world-wearied experience that lacks enthusiasm.