Christopher Guest and his comedy troupe put both joy and pathos into their heavily improvised comedies. On one magnificent occasion -- 2001's dog pageant, "Best in Show" -- they even sustained those two ingredients throughout an entire picture.
The gang's fourth jamboree, "For Your Consideration," which opens today, mocks Hollywood's Oscar mania, and the results are mostly funny but surprisingly sad, too. The movie makes explicit the lust for showbiz validation that has lurked in all of Guest's projects, from the community theater outfit in "Waiting for Guffman" to the middle-aged folkies in "A Mighty Wind."
It's not the dreamers that Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy send up, but the harshness of the dream itself. In "For Your Consideration," the dream is toxic and the factory that produces it is cruel.
Abandoning the faux documentary format of Guest's previous pictures, the film takes us to the period set of "Home for Purim," an inane slice of 1940s melodrama about a Jewish family reunited in time for the dying matriarch's favorite holiday.
We catch snippets of the dialogue ("It ain't a dang mitzvah!") and meet the unknown cast. Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer), the sunny, spineless star of a hot dog ad, plays the father; Brian Chubb (Christopher Moynihan) and Callie Webb (Parker Posey) play the adult children while having an on-set fling.
During the production a rumor hits the Internet, impossibly, that Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara) , an insecure passive-aggressive, is giving an Oscar-caliber performance as the high-strung mother ("I've gone meshugenah!").
Soon this tiny, irrelevant, unfinished, and -- let's be honest -- terrifically stupid independent film is beset by attention, expectations, and egos. In the film's best running gag, Fred Willard and a strapping Jane Lynch report the latest "Purim" developments on their cheesy entertainment show. (Lynch power-smiles into the teleprompter and Willard, in a bleached fauxhawk, blasts his putdowns.)
As amusing as it is, the comedy here consists mostly of predictable potshots. (Most hilarious is the farcical tune sung in "Home for Purim" during the breaking of bread. It's literal musical dinner theater.) Guest, who plays the humorless director of "Home for Purim," and Levy, who plays Miller's agent, indulge their usual disdain for the unhip, the clueless, and the philistine. Levy is a dimwit. "Purim" producer Jennifer Coolidge is a dingbat. The veteran publicist (John Michael Higgins) doesn't know what the Internet is. The indie-studio executives (Ricky Gervais and Larry Miller) want the already addled screenwriters (Bob Balaban and Michael McKean) to "tone down the Jewishness." And the actors are gradually exposed as narcissists.
Before he started with these ensemble projects, Guest directed and co-wrote 1989's "The Big Picture, " which was a lot more incisive about film industry craziness. Despite the dead fish floating in this latest barrel, the potshots in "For Your Consideration" do add up to a knowing jeremiad against the maddening phenomenon of awards-season hype. And the film shows with steadily gathering force how personally distorting the machine can be.
The Oscar talk reaches a fever pitch after "Purim" comes out and takes its most drastic toll on Hack, whose face surgically becomes a mask -- no, the mask -- of comedy and tragedy. In the film's superior last third, O'Hara's performance, at once touching and bravely unpleasant, transcends its satirical starting point and becomes vanity's awful downside: Norma Desmond in the funhouse mirror.
Like O'Hara, none of the players in "For Your Consideration" is a household name (no matter how much they should be), so the film's jokes on ignominy are sort of heartbreaking. These aren't megastars biting the hand that feeds them -- it's not Julia Roberts in "Full Frontal," "America's Sweethearts," or " The Player." They're the semi-, sub-, and non-famous satirizing and dramatizing the actor's struggle for attention, better work, and integrity. Lacking a hand to feed them, they bite themselves, instead.