At their best, the films of Christopher Guest are variations of the same desperate optimism, or optimistic desperation, playing on unspeakable anxieties within the hopeful souls onscreen—and between their quiet agonies and our own. The mockumentary pioneer has a knack for piercing the human veil with a compassion that lets us share in the mortification of their disappointments and the highs of their unexpected triumphs. In his latest ensemble piece Mascots, one such sublime moment arrives as a real estate appraiser dons an oversized plumber suit and grooves in perfect syncopation with a dancing piece of poo, nailing a performance that, to him, is the culmination of his truest life’s work.
The rewards are subtle but a bit too far in between in Mascots, the first film Guest’s directed since skewering Hollywood’s Oscars race a decade ago to disappointing critical reviews. Much of it feels familiar, which will bring both comfort and frustration to fans. Like 2000’s Best in Show and 2006’s For Your Consideration, it’s a competition comedy tracking a potpourri of personalities vying for recognition in their own peculiar world. Here, hopes and dreams swell between professional mascots who share a love for wearing giant costumes to pump up crowds of strangers… as well as a blissful ignorance to what the outside world really thinks of their “craft.”
Small-pond aspirations are the bread and butter of Guest and his repertory gang of actors, many of whom show up to play in the lead-up to the 8th annual World Mascot Association’s Golden Fluffy Awards. Frequent collaborators like Ed Begley, Jr., Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, and Guest himself are reliable for a laugh or ten as the judges, coaches, and sporting team owners in orbit around a very specific community of elite pro mascots gathered in miserable Anaheim, California, to compete for the field’s top honors.
Most of the central figures in Mascots, which Netflix releases on October 13, are younger comedians whose improvisational talents jive differently than the usual Guest crew: Zach Woods and Sarah Baker as a couple whose cheery mascoting partnership belies some serious marital issues; Tom Bennett as the scion of a line of British pro mascots trying to live up to his family’s legacy; and Chris O’Dowd as a bruiser in a downward spiral who skates in a giant fist costume. Parker Posey, unsurprisingly, stands out as a Southern-fried performance artiste who passes the torch to her sister (Susan Yeagley) and in doing so pays the gratification of the mascot arts forward.
The simple pleasures of Mascots fall in line with any Guest offering: Quirky characters with names like Gabby Monkhouse and Upton French, aggressive passive-aggression among frazzled characters just barely holding it together. Only Fred Willard, perhaps, could charm while cluelessly and insultingly confusing a little person for a leprechaun. But Posey really steals the show as Cindi Babineaux, a limber dancer who sports a purple basketball jersey, road kill paint on her limbs, and an armadillo mask to become Arvin the Armadillo, the mascot of a women’s college. She also leads into the film’s most inspired moment, when the heated rivalries, professional jealousies, and behind-the-scenes backstabbing festering beneath the surface at the Fluffies threatens to get her disqualified on the grounds that her team’s mascot, formerly known as the “Leaping Squaws,” is now too culturally insensitive to condone.
It never much matters who wins the competitions in Guest’s films, but here the journey yields more poignancy than usual in the world of Mascots. What drives these men and women to put on those sweaty, claustrophobic suits, entertaining halftime crowds that often don’t appreciate them—if they pay them any mind at all? How does performing behind a mask bring greater gratification to these unsinkable souls than putting their own faces out there for the world to see? Is there a link between mascoting and micropenises, as courageously bemoaned by Begley’s A.J. Blumquist, a judge who once performed as an anatomically correct donkey?
Mascots at times feels too sparse, too slight, despite the enormous amount of improv footage Guest shot to whittle his story down to 90 minutes. Blame the once-fresh structure and methods that have since become convention, or the comparative flatness of some characters’ storylines. But there’s something more human to the particular foibles of these misfits and how their collective vocation validates and transforms them that makes Mascots feel like a kinder, gentler Christopher Guest movie—a minor variation on a familiar tune, but a warm one nonetheless.