Tuesday, 8 November 2016

On demand: "Mascots"

Christopher Guest continues to mine something close to comic gold from fly-on-the-wall observance of leftfield/otherwise fringey activity. After tackling regional amdram (Waiting for Guffman), dog training (Best in Show), folk music (A Mighty Wind) and awards-season positioning (For Your Consideration), Guest's latest mockumentary Mascots - composed for Netflix, as per the new world entertainment order - plunges us inside the furry world of competitive mascotry, part of that process whereby our sporting events have been transformed into global televisual spectacle. (Leading your ornery grandfather to moan that they've destroyed the integrity of his favourite heavily sponsored, advert-interrupted sport.)

The usual semi-improvised scenes set forth a whole new gallery of North American eccentrics and other archetypes: the can-do couple (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker) whose happy faces conceal latent marital issues; the bendy kook (Parker Posey) whose Laurie Anderson-inspired routine entails imagining the final moments of a roadkill armadillo; the middle-aged misfit (Christopher Moynihan) nursing a disastrous Facebook crush; and the Irish-Canadian bad boy (Chris O'Dowd) who performs - on ice - as a character known as The Fist. Reflecting Guest's British heritage - and his recent transatlantic HBO endeavour Family Tree, which starred O'Dowd - the field of survey has been extended to South London, where we find Owen Golly Jr. (Tom Bennett, comic sneak thief of this summer's Love & Friendship), hedgehog mascot of non-league Willingham Rovers.

It takes a while to make the introductions, but what quickly comes clear is that Guest is, in his own way, as engaged with worldbuilding as a Peter Jackson or James Cameron; the difference is that Guest's worlds are intentionally smaller. We learn, for example, that the Rovers play their home games at Peasdale Park ("with its legendary Flange Road end"); that O'Dowd's troublemaker was once part of a religious cult inspired by the old Sunday teatime favourite Highway to Heaven. The event bringing these disparate souls together - the annual World Mascot Association Championships, held this time round in Anaheim, California - is being monitored for possible broadcast by no less than the Gluten-Free Channel, carried in "over two cities nationwide", as its beaming representative John Michael Higgins has it.

Once again, one senses we are in the safest of comedy hands, and at its best, Mascots offers the joy of watching old pros who know exactly how to bring added VFM of one form or another to the set - even if the audience is technically watching for free as part of a subscription service. Jane Lynch and Ed Begley Jr. sustain the laugh rate as judges whose own rivalry threatens to overshadow the competition, and Guest knows he can coax out at least one hearty cackle just from handing Fred Willard, as a decidedly non-motivational coach going under the name Greg Gammons, Jr., a copy of "Pup Life" magazine ("Dogs are funny, aren't they?"), or from the idea that Jennifer Coolidge might have wound up married to an understandably shellshocked Bob Balaban.

That there's nothing especially ground- or format-breaking here is exemplified by Guest's own return as Corky St. Clair, the swishing choreographer of Waiting for Guffman: both before and behind the camera, he's found a laughter delivery system that works, and he's very much sticking to it. Yet he keeps setting this ensemble to bouncing off one another, in the process generating new, distinct and generally warming energies. The second half can then be devoted to the competition itself, and throughout these variously crass, inane, sexually inappropriate, in at least one case utterly incomprehensible mascot routines, you can't help but spy Guest's own craft and showmanship, his affection for anybody setting even a furry foot into the frame. No spoilers, but as Mascots allows one of its players a moment of genuine high-wire triumph, your chuckles subside, replaced by sincere oohs and aahs - and an acknowledgement of the carefully choreographed skill on display here.

Mascots is now streaming on Netflix.

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