By HANNAH BROWNFOR YOUR CONSIDERATION3 stars
Directed by Christopher Guest. Written by Guest and Eugene Levy. Hebrew title: Ve ha Zohe Hu. 86 min.
With Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Christopher Guest, Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, Harry Shearer, Ricky Gervais, Michael McKean, Ed Begley Jr.
Christopher Guest's latest film, For Your Consideration, is a spoof - sending up the Hollywood hype surrounding both the Oscars and the independent filmmaking world - so gentle that it frequently slides into blandness. Still, it's hard not to like a movie that was obviously made with intelligent moviegoers in mind. Overall, Consideration is an enjoyable film, if not a very memorable one.
Guest, who is probably best known for skewering the world of heavy metal in the screenplay he co-wrote for This Is Spinal Tap (1984) - the film that gave us the term "mockumentary" and such unforgettable phrases as "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever" - has gone on to direct sardonic but affectionate parodies of amateur theater (Waiting for Guffman), dog pageants (Best in Show) and folk music (A Mighty Wind).
It might be argued that all his subjects are exceedingly easy targets, but that's beside the point. Guest's greatest achievement so far is that he has managed to keep making his low-key films in the era of big-budget megamovies, and has also created an ensemble that works together like a cinematic repertory company - among them Guest himself, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara.
The son of an American Jewish mother and an English aristocrat (Guest inherited the title of Baron of Saling in the County of Essex when his father died in 1996), Guest, who is married to Jamie Lee Curtis (scion of Janet Leigh, who starred in Psycho, and Tony Curtis), is certainly well qualified to turn a jaundiced eye on the absurdities of the Oscar chase.
For Your Consideration is about the making of a low-budget period drama called Home for Purim that, through a series of lucky accidents, ends up generating a great deal of Oscar buzz. The line "For your consideration" is what movie studios put on ads in industry publications like Variety during the runup to the Oscars, with the ads designed to win Oscar nominations for their movies by keeping these films in the consciousness of Academy voters. Although it is rare for independent films to garner Oscar nominations and wins, it has become more of a possibility since movies such as Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction won screenplay Oscars, and Hilary Swank won her first Best Actress Award for Boys Don't Cry.
So when a Web site mentions that Home for Purim could be an Oscar contender, the stakes are suddenly raised, and most of For Your Consideration pokes fun at what this means for the cast and crew. It's particularly unsettling for Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara), a masterful but little-known actress who buries her career worries with space-cadet cheerfulness and, until the buzz starts, has come to terms with her under-the-radar working life. Young actress Callie Webb (Parker Posey) hopes Purim will be her ticket to stardom, while Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer) just prays an Oscar nomination will mean he can leave the world of commercials, where he is best known for playing a foot-long hotdog.
While the comedy surrounding the suddenly raised hopes of the cast and director (played by Guest himself) is familiar territory, the movie-within-the-movie is more curious. The film they are working on is an odd and absurd blend of Tennessee Williams-style drama and Neil Simon comedy. The family in Purim is Southern, and the film is set in the Forties. It features the Pisher clan (the name matches the level of many of the jokes), a middle-aged couple whose adult children - one a sailor stationed in the Galapagos Islands, the other a lesbian about to come out of the closet with her female lover - return home when they learn their mother is dying.
Although they throw in a Yiddish word every other sentence, nothing in this comically awful movie-within-a-movie actually feels, looks or sounds Jewish, which may be the point. It was never clear to me how much we were supposed to laugh at the Jewish elements and how much writers Guest and Levy wanted this film to parody the independent-film industry and spotlight how awful many of these often over-hyped, low-budget productions can be.
In any case, as the Oscar hopes rise, the film's producers advise the screenwriters to tone down the "in-your-face Jewishness" by making "a few little tweaks." As one producer explains in one of the film's funniest moments, "All I'm saying is, have it there; don't shove it down people's throat. I don't run around going, 'I'm a gentile, look at my foreskin!' I don't shove it down your throat, because I don't care."
The producers win, of course, and the film is renamed Home for Thanksgiving.
The trouble with this conceit is that anyone who sees independent movies these days knows that the more obscure, ethnic and exotic a film's storyline is, the more likely it is to get made and shown: I can imagine the screenwriter of a movie called Home for Thanksgiving being urged to change the title to Home for Purim more easily than the other way around.
This is just one of many details that don't quite make sense. Nothing in the movie feels real enough to inspire genuine comedy. Most of the characters and situations are either too broad to be really funny or too subtle to be funny at all.
But this isn't a movie meant to inspire much reflection. It aims to entertain and that it does, especially when the cast of Purim/Thanksgiving appears on a series of Los Angeles talk shows to promote their movie and their own Oscar hopes.
"Purim - that's a Jewish holiday," says one morning-show host, clearly proud of his knowledge, and Victor Allan Miller replies: "Wonderful holiday, family, good triumphs over evil."
This scene and several others like it make the movie worth seeing.
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