Monday, November 20, 2006

Review - For Your Consideration

“Oscar is the backbone of this industry, an industry not known for its backbone”

Is there anything crazier in Hollywood than the ridiculous hullabaloo which traditionally surrounds the awards season? Some films get made, get released, and then quietly go away after their time in the cinemas has run its course; but when a picture starts picking up ‘Oscar buzz’ - often months before any footage from the film has even been seen - the publicity machine goes into overdrive. The stars are shunted from one talk show to another as they promote both the movie and themselves; ‘for your consideration’ posters are produced which practically beg voters to choose this particular film in every available category, and sometimes smear campaigns are even run against other films which have the temerity to put up some sort of competition. By the time the ceremony itself has finally arrived, the notion of a film winning purely on its merits has almost been forgotten. The Oscar campaign is a process which reveals Hollywood at its most self-obsessed, shallow and avaricious.

All in all, this tacky Tinseltown circus should be perfect material for Christopher Guest. He has already trained his satirical eye on the world of amateur dramatics, dogs shows and folk music; and while Guest has tried his hand at Hollywood satire before - with 1989’s underrated The Big Picture - this is the first time he has done so with the talented ensemble that has become his trademark.

Speaking of trademarks, however, the first thing one notices about For Your Consideration is the fact that Guest has dropped the faux-documentary style of filmmaking which served him so well in Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Instead, For Your Consideration runs along more traditional narrative lines, following a small group of actors and filmmakers who allow an internet rumour of Oscar potential to take over their lives.

The film which is subject to speculation is Home for Purim, a terrible southern Jewish melodrama which features veteran actress Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara) as a dying matriarch and Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer) as her devoted husband, who prays that their ne’er-do-well daughter Callie Webb (Parker Posey) will come home to see her mother before it’s too late. The film shoot is progressing in unremarkable fashion, and during a break the director of photography casually mentions to Marilyn an internet rumour which he spotted that weekend. Apparently a spy for a Hollywood gossip site was on the Home for Purim set and he was so impressed with Marilyn’s performance he instantly tagged it as having Oscar potential.

Marilyn is immediately flustered by the news. After years of relative anonymity (her role as a blind prostitute in the 70’s was the only one which made any impact), could this finally be her time in the limelight? Soon rumours are spreading like wildfire around the Home for Purim set, with Victor and Callie also being touted as potential winners. Victor instructs his agent (Eugene Levy) to stop accepting commercial and radio voiceover jobs, and Callie’s relationship with co-star Brian (Christopher Moynihan) is strained when her profile begins to rise. The Oscar buzz has an impact on other aspects of the production too, with a studio bigwig (Ricky Gervais) suddenly appearing to ask if the film’s ‘Jewishness’ could be toned down just a little - not the easiest thing to do with a film called Home for Purim.

Guest fans may be aghast when they hear about the auteur’s decision to drop his usual ‘mockumentary’ approach for this film, but it proves to be a very wise decision for a number of reasons. For one thing, it allows Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy to be more focused in their storytelling, developing a clear narrative thread while still leaving room for their large cast to have fun on the margins. Guest and Levy achieve a smart balancing act with their screenplay; managing to maintain the plot’s momentum even as they flit between minor characters, and they pack quite a lot of material into For Your Consideration’s brisk (perhaps too brisk) 86-minute running time. This isn’t exactly the most biting Hollywood satire you’ve ever seen, though; the script mostly settles for affectionately lampooning some of the more absurd sides of the filmmaking world, and while the targets attacked in For Your Consideration might be unimaginative, easy picks, it’s still fun to see Guest and co. at work.

And it’s fun for one big reason - the cast Christopher Guest has assembled over the course of his recent pictures is one of the funniest ensembles imaginable. The actors are completely in tune with the director’s filmmaking style, and their performances appear effortless; bouncing off each other without skipping a beat. The unmatchable Fred Willard and Jane Lynch are hilarious as the hosts of a garish TV entertainment show, John Michael Higgins produces some of the biggest laughs with his weird and wonderful turn as a strange publicist, and Jennifer Coolidge, as one of the film’s producers, again proves peerless in the ‘dumb blonde’ role. There are fine actors tucked away in every corner of the film - Ed Begley Jr. is a camp makeup man, Bob Balaban and Michael McKean are a pair of frustrated writers, Guest himself is a neurotic director - and they all get their chance to tickle the funny bone without ever proving an unbalancing or distracting influence on the film’s central story.

Guest has always focused his attentions on the self-deluded dreamers of the world, painfully optimistic souls who fully believe that their moment of glory is just around the corner, and For Your Consideration is no different; but this time the film dares to explore some of the pain which shattered dreams can cause, and in doing so it achieves a rare poignancy. As the three characters at the centre of the Oscar attention, Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer and Parker Posey give wonderful performances which offers a surprising amount of depth and feeling. Shearer lends a quiet dignity to Victor, maintaining a jocular façade even when his publicity tour sees him cavorting uncomfortably on an MTV youth show; and Posey is superb as the actress who derides awards as meaningless before the rumours start, and then finds them becoming increasingly important to her as the speculation mounts.

But the film belongs to O’Hara who gives the performance of her life as the sad, misguided Marilyn. Her barely-concealed joy at her possible nomination is a delight, but the film grows more caustic as she allows herself to be mangled by the Hollywood machine in the desperate pursuit of that golden statuette. There’s a certain reveal - late in the film - which is genuinely shocking and rather disturbing, and O’Hara’s brave display only grows in stature as Marilyn’s dreams slip out of her grasp.

Some gags work better than others in For Your Consideration, and some fall flat completely (the less said about Ricky Gervais’ tiresome cameo the better); but even if it didn’t always keep me laughing, it consistently kept me smiling, and that’s a rare pleasure in a cinema these days. Even better is the way the film unexpectedly sucker-punches the viewer with the emotional waters it dares to venture into, and the fact that it is held together by a brilliant piece of acting from Catherine O’Hara. What a sweet irony it would be if O’Hara’s performance was given the consideration it deserves over the coming months.