[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Mascots is now available on Netflix.]
I like the films of Christopher Guest, but he hasn’t had a start-to-finish great picture since 2003’s A Mighty Wind. I was hoping he would return to form with his latest movie, Mascots, but instead he’s returned with his weakest effort yet. The premise seems like it would be right in Guest’s wheelhouse of quirky characters, but the director/co-writer struggles to find the humor in people who are devoted to wearing silly costumes for the purposes of winning a competition. The heart of Guest’s films has always been in lovable weirdoes who usually hope to achieve some kind of glory, but despite the charming cast of characters, Mascots can’t seem to find many laughs.
Like other Guest movies, Mascots takes on a documentary format to follow an assorted group of oddballs. The movie follows a collection of mascots as they make their way to compete in an annual competition in the hopes of winning the Gold Fluffy. There’s bickering couple Mike and Mindy (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker); Phil (Christopher Moynihan), who hopes that he can win over his old high school crush; Owen Golly, Jr. (Tom Bennett), who’s carrying on the family tradition of mascoting from his father (Jim Piddock); a devoted dancer (Parker Posey) who travels with her supportive half-sister Laci (Susan Yeagley); and Tommy (Chris O’Dowd), mascoting’s resident bad-boy. We also meet the judges, the coaches, and the other assorted misfits drawn to the competition.
The most striking thing about Mascots is that it’s largely in the hands of newcomers to Guest’s coterie of performers. While there are still the usual suspects like Posey, Piddock, Guest, Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, John Michael Higgins, Ed Begley, Jr, the film rests largely in a fresh group of faces like Woods, Baker, Yeagley, and Bennett. And that’s not to say that they’re bad, or that they’re not capable of delivering the material (as much material as there is; Guest’s films use a lot of improvisation), but it seems like everyone is at a loss as to where to find the comedy.
Part of that comes from a lack of interesting relationships and characters. Perhaps Guest thought the very act of being a mascot was weird enough on its own, but this isn’t a particularly colorful group. Even when there is a bright idea like having a “bad boy of mascoting” like Tommy, the character is largely relegated to the sidelines. It seems like every character got a single joke, and Guest didn’t develop it any further. Jane Lynch’s judge underwent a mascoting injury and wrote a book with a funny title. Begley, Jr.’s character was an anatomically correct mascot to make up for his own physical shortcomings. It would be like taking Eugene Levy’s character from Best in Show, cracking the joke about his two left feet, and never going beyond that.
The people in Mascots are nice enough, but they’re not ridiculous enough, and neither is their situation. It’s a made-up competition (unlike a dog show or a reunion concert), but Guest doesn’t really run with it. Instead, it’s a long build up to the competition and the hiccups along the way aren’t particularly interesting. For example, at one point Phil goes to perform at a school for disabled children. When he gets there, he discovers that they’re blind. That’s the level of humor Mascots largely operates at: stuff that might get a brief chuckle.
Mascots is occasionally funny, but given Guest’s past successes and the deep bench of acting talent he has on hand, the film should be so much more than sporadically amusing. The movie has a promising start, but Guest doesn’t really build on anything. He doesn’t invest in these characters and their relationships like he did in previous efforts. Mascots shows that Guest might be better off poking fun at institutions like dog shows, folk music, and community theater rather than trying to invent a quirky situation and force characters into it.