November 16, 2006

For Your Consideration

Loathing overtakes humor in Guest's send-up of Hollywood's awards frenzy

By Vadim Rizov

A representative example of the wit of For Your Consideration: clueless, blustering agent Morley Orfkin (Eugene Levy) pays a surprise visit to client Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer) on the set of Miller's latest film, Home For Purim. (It's funny because it's Jewish.) Miller protests that he needed to talk to Orfkin yesterday, not today. Orfkin, facilely apologetic, rambles about how Miller, his beloved client, is his first and most important priority, but his cell phone rings as he's getting on a roll. "Excuse me," he says, "I have to take this."

If this description has you rolling on the floor, get excited: there's a whole lot more of this kind of would-be in-the-know humor. For Your Consideration takes its title from the full-page ads that litter trade publications like Variety come Oscar season, when studios remind potential voters what they've put out and who they're counting on to be nominated; half of the humor comes from the hysteria that sweeps the set of Home For Purim when rumors start spreading that the film is Oscar material.

The rest of the jokes come from a dog-eared set of stereotypes about Hollywood in general. Whether or not you find Christopher Guest's work funny, there's no denying that the verisimilitude he gives his targets (dog shows in Best In Show, folk music in A Mighty Wind) is his strongest asset. For Your Consideration ditches all that in favor of "satire" of the broadest possible strokes. Claims that this is "insider" humor are nonsense: everyone knows that the tropes that agents are slimeballs, PR people shallow, actors vain, directors neurotic, writers protective and shy. It's the same comic principle that instantly damn cinematic portrayals of lawyers, used car salesman and insurance agents; For Your Consideration is doomed to sitcom purgatory within minutes of its beginning.

The opening scene finds actress Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara) watching TV. Bette Davis is on, and Hack mouths along to the antiquated dialogue; it's those Bette Davis eyes, presumably, that she wants to bring to Home For Purim, but the Oscar races leave her horribly Botoxed instead. Home For Purim – like all the short film parodies seen in this film's mock Ebert & Roeper forum, including a cop movie (The Paper Badge) that plays like bad '80s TV – is wildly implausible, a '50s-style melodrama the likes of which hasn't been seen in years. Guest doesn't seem to have even a nodding acquaintance with what's winning mainstream awards these days, targeting moldy pathos instead of the more current pieties that win plaudits. His ire thus misdirected, his point about awards in general (that the hype sucks away from potentially good art) falters, and only the generic Hollywood jokes remain; you can't tell if he's nostalgic for old Hollywood or just out of touch.

Occasionally For Your Consideration aims at targets more specific and less cliched than "Hollywood is shallow"; at rare moments, it hits them. The promotional blitz for Home For Purim includes a stop at a thinly disguised Charlie Rose Show, whose familiar set and pompously self-regarding host are succinctly travestied. Mostly, though, the familiar Christopher Guest troupe seems to be involved in playing dress-up: all the familiar faces (including O'Hara, Guest, Levy, Shearer, Bob Balaban, Parker Posey, Fred Willard and Jane Lynch), many of whom have been hanging around since Waiting For Guffman, dutifully assume new poses and costumes, but to diminishing returns. As the co-host of an Entertainment Tonight type program, Willard sports an unlikely pink-tinged faux-hawk, typifying the feeling of watching familiar players entertain each other with patently ridiculous accessories rather than trying to make them plausible to outsiders.

And the outside world does occasionally intrude on Guest's club: Ricky Gervais shows up briefly as a blithely malicious studio head, and refreshing though his presence is, it's still a straight transplant of his schtick from his television show The Office (only in more expensive pinstripe clothing). Ironically, the mockumentary conceit once used so successfully by Gervais are ditched here by Guest for the first time since 1998's lamentable Chris Farley vehicle Almost Heroes, making you wonder more than ever why his visuals are so shoddy and the editorial rhythms so haphazard. It's even more of a problem here because the on-set stuff and the fake movie look exactly the same.

Mostly, you have to wonder what kind of bitter travails led to this outpouring of generic but oddly impassioned bile: Guest's characteristic generosity to his subjects has been replaced by active loathing. The strongest suggestion of an original thought is how Hollywood whitewashes ethnic and religious complexity, as Home For Purim is de-Jew-ified and reconfigured as Home For Thanksgiving by Gervais and the studio to make it more palatable for a wider audience. But the representation of Jews in mainstream cinema is the least of Hollywood's problems, given its fundamental timidity at representing any kind of faith aside from blandly positivist family fare. The ultimate problem isn't that For Your Consideration sets up all the wrong targets; the problem is that it's undistinguished technically, dull and laughless.

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