Christopher Guest’s films mostly deal with passionate but ordinary people who aspire to positions of status within strange little subcultures: mid-century folk music, dog shows, community theater or, in the case of his new mockumentary, Mascots, the world of sports-mascot competitions.
In the alternate universe of Guest’s first film in a decade, professional mascots in the major leagues can make six figures — pretty implausible, given that actual major-league cheerleaders earn minimum wage. But here, according to Langston Aubrey (Michael Hitchcock), President of the World Mascot Organization, it’s the lure of a high-figure salary in the majors that draws the best mascots from around the world to Anaheim, California for the annual championship. As always, Guest exploits the tension between this deeply silly little bubble world — one epitomized by big foam suits and its ultimate honor, the Fluffy Award — and the self-seriousness of its competitors.
Guest has impeccable and very specific taste in comic actors, cultivated over a four-decade career making improvised films. They’re a funny, high-bandwidth crowd, all capable of quick responses and scene-building. They’re all adept at portraying ordinary people, though most of them are pretty extraordinary-looking in one way or another. And Guest prefers actors who have maintained careers below a certain level of fame — the most notable here are Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Jane Lynch and Parker Posey.
Over the first 20 minutes, the director introduces a large cast of ambitious sports mascots from around the world, all attempting to overcome their own internal struggles as they compete: a married couple from Kansas (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker) who dress like squids while desperately trying to hide their mutual loathing; a butcher from South Croydon (Tom Bennett) who inherited his hedgehog mascot role from his demanding, perfectionist father; a hard-drinking hockey mascot (Chris O’Dowd) whose costume is a gigantic foam fist.
And they keep coming — the first act is like a clown car expelling an unlikely number of familiar comic actors as coaches, judges, TV producers, bankrollers and mascot family members, including a very brief cameo by the director as Corky St. Clair, his blinkered community-theater director from Waiting for Guffman.
Television writer Dan Harmon once commented that mockumentaries are almost like cheating, because the writer gets to present a joke, followed by the actor explaining the joke to the camera. Since Guest’s last film in the style, 2003's A Mighty Wind, the mockumentary format became briefly became commonplace with TV hits like The Office and Parks and Recreation, all owing huge debts to This Is Spinal Tap, which Guest co-wrote and co-starred in. So Mascots enters a media market well versed in the conventions of the form: fake interview segments, handheld photography, furtive glances toward the camera.
The film’s cozy safety is also partly due to the gentleness of Guest’s approach and his affection for silly people, though he holds them at arm’s length. Like a lot of his work, Mascots reassures the audience that they’re smarter, healthier and more self-aware than the characters — better educated, too savvy to engage with ridiculous subcultures. In the film’s coda, the competition winner has abandoned mascottery and opened a vegan restaurant in a fancy neighborhood, as though adopting the film's view that wearing big foam suits is a ludicrous occupation for adults — realizing, like Guest and his audience, that he’s better than the other characters.