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Thursday, May 15, 2003 02:20 pm

Movie Reviews - A Mighty Wind, Daddy Day Care

A Mighty Wind

A Mighty Wind

It's always fun to see great actors firing on all cylinders. That's really what's at the root of A Mighty Wind, the latest "mock documentary" by Christopher Guest, a Saturday Night Live alum and co-creator of This Is Spinal Tap. Guest previously skewered small-town theater in the very funny Waiting for Guffman and dog shows in Best in Show. Guest's target this time is the folk music scene of the early 1960s, when performers such as Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, the New Christy Minstrels, and the Kingston Trio dominated the charts and appeared regularly on TV variety shows. It was also a period of political and social upheaval, which was due in part to the emerging folk scene, but this is ignored by Guest and his co-writer and star Eugene Levy. Whether this decision by the filmmakers was dictated by today's conservative political tenor, I don't know. But any portrayal of '60s folk without any reference to Vietnam doesn't seem right.

Or perhaps I'm taking things too seriously. Guest certainly doesn't. His setting is a memorial concert for Irving Steinbloom, a legendary folk impresario who handled most of the biggest folk groups. His son Jonathan--a nervous, stage-presence-challenged sourpuss played by Bob Balaban--decides to organize a reunion of his dad's bands to headline the concert, "An Ode to Irving," to be performed at New York City's Town Hall and broadcast live on public television. The groups include the Folksmen, a trio of genial, middle-aged faux-hipsters (and an unofficial Spinal Tap reunion, in that they are portrayed by Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean); the New Main Street Singers, a "neuftet" of sweater-vested squares that includes only one original member (Paul Dooley); and Mitch & Mickey, a once romantically involved duo who made a huge splash when they kissed on a national television show during their hit, "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow." Levy and Catherine O'Hara, who have been performing together since their Second City days in Canada during the early 1970s, portray Mitch and Mickey and provide A Mighty Wind's best performances. They will undoubtedly be ignored at Oscar time, but their turns surely stand among the great comedic achievements of the year.

The often thin line between comedy and tragedy has rarely been tightroped with as much bravado as in the scenes involving Levy and O'Hara. O'Hara's Mickey left the music scene completely after the duo's personal and professional breakup, eventually landing in the suburbs and marrying a catheter salesman. For Levy's Mitch, the split was more emotional, following two unsuccessful solo albums with a stay in a mental hospital. Played by Levy (who also strummed a guitar in his very first film, the Canadian horror movie Cannibal Girls, 30 years ago) in a gray wig, landing-strip beard, and constantly bemused expression, Mitch is a '60s casualty whose misfortunes, absurd though they may be, make him more human than all of A Mighty Wind's other characters combined. O'Hara's deft "straight man" helps Mitch & Mickey emerge as a colorful, dramatic couple, almost independent of the subtle skewings elsewhere in Guest's film. The rest of the cast is in equally fine form, even though their characters are not as well defined. Fred Willard receives the biggest laughs as a gleefully obnoxious and insincere former sit-com star who has taken over management of the New Main Street Singers. Ed Begley Jr. scores as a Swedish Jew in charge of the telecast.

A Mighty Wind would never have worked without the strict attention paid to period detail, mainly in the form of fake old album covers, film clips, and especially the music. Like they did in Spinal Tap, Guest, McKean, and Shearer re-create the sound and vibe of a musical genre while imperceptibly mocking it. It's always fun when good performers have to pretend to be bad ones, and the amount of detail that went into shaping these songs is admirable. Despite the silliness of the lyrics they're singing, you might be surprised to find yourself sitting in teary suspense as Levy and O'Hara perform their climactic number.

Note: According to the MPAA, A Mighty Wind received a PG-13 rating for "sex-related humor." Not that children under 13 would have any interest in a subtle character-based parody of 1960s folk music, but there's no reason they should be warned off this movie. The so-called sex humor contains no profanity and would probably not be understood by kids anyway. This is a PG movie in my mind; that it received the same rating as the scatologically drenched Austin Powers in Goldmember is another example of the MPAA's inconsistency. (MM)

(Running time 1:29, rated PG-13)
Grade B+


Daddy Day Care

Desperate for a hit after the dismal releases of Showtime, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, and I Spy, Eddie Murphy returns to the family filmmaking that has saved his career in the past (The Nutty Professor, Dr. Doolittle). It's likely that Daddy Day Care will do the same, as forgettable as it is. In an effort to entertain a group of attention-deficit kids, Murphy appears in an oversized, vibrantly green, broccoli costume. The comic's acerbic rendition of Gumby on Saturday Night Live sprang to mind instantly and it seemed as if the character had morphed into something kinder, gentler, and more healthy. Nothing could be more fitting for a performer who has learned the two most important rules for a long, happy Hollywood career: Play it safe and take the money and run.

Murphy and Curb Your Enthusiasm's Jeff Garlin are two unemployed ad execs who open a day care center only to realize that the children they supervise are actually demonic. The next big scandal to hit Hollywood must be the revelation that the pharmaceutical giants behind Ritalin and other behavioral drugs financed this film. Never have I seen a more unruly bunch of rug rats. They kick, scream, tear gutters off of houses, throw food, hijack riding mowers, and engage in other acts of suburban terrorism. If Daddy Day Care isn't a subversive attempt to sway parents to get their kids doped up, I don't know what is.

But perhaps this is merely the result of an unimaginative, lazy screenwriter--in this case, Geoff Rodkey, who uses a poop joke or a scene featuring a shot to the crotch every seven minutes. (I can assure you that this is an accurate figure.) Say this much for director Steve Carr, he keeps this innocuous collection of obvious gags moving. (CK)

(Running time 1:33, rated PG)
Grade C


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