It feels odd to say this, but the primary problem with Christopher Guest's latest improvised-dialogue mockumentary is that it just isn't mean enough. And the reason that statement feels odd is because Guest's movies have always had a deep-seated affection for their openly ridiculous characters. They've never been about cruelty or contempt. But they aren't above having a laugh at insular communities — community theater in Waiting For Guffman, the competitive dog-show circuit Best In Show, and professional folk musicians in A Mighty Wind — and they find the hilarity in their characters' earnest, obsessive devotion to fringe pursuits.
Mascots, a newly released Netflix original movie, initially follows the same pattern by examining the obsessives at a national competition for sports mascots. But after a promising, funny start, Mascots actually starts to take the craft and significance of mascotery fairly seriously. And while it's admirable that Guest is enthusiastically rooting for his characters, there's nothing particularly funny about the approach.
Mascots is Guest's first film since 2006's For Your Consideration, but it still features many of his familiar ensemble players. Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, and Michael McKean are missing, but Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, Don Lake, John Michael Higgins, Harry Shearer, Ed Begley Jr., and Michael Hitchcock are back, with Guest himself popping in to reprise his mincing Guffman character, Corky St. Clair. And there are new additions as well: Zach Woods (Silicon Valley) and Sarah Baker (Free Radio, Go On) star as a faltering husband-and-wife mascot couple, and Chris O'Dowd (who also starred in Guest's HBO series Family Tree) has a major role as an aggressive, X-treme hockey mascot whose costume is an oversized fist. Anyone who's seen a previous Guest mockumentary will recognize the pattern: he alternates sit-down talking-head interviews with footage of the developing narrative, leading up to a big defining event that connects all the characters. This time around, it's the 8th World Mascot Association Championships, where 20 acts — solo mascots and teams — will compete for a supposedly coveted "Fluffy" award.
Why is there never enough Bob Balaban?
Guest's improv ensemble plays a roundtable of competitors, judges, team owners, producers, and other satellites to the scene, but Woods and Baker get many of the best lines as they snipe at each other while pretending they aren't sniping, or deadpan through enjoyably absurdist nonsense, like an early description of "the few instances of sadism in the animal kingdom." Everyone gets at least a few moments on camera, but the cast is large enough, and the movie short enough, that no one gets enough room to shine for more than a line or two. (There just isn't enough Bob Balaban. There's never enough Bob Balaban.) Part of the fun of Guest's movies is watching how he establishes all these characters in isolation, then lets them bounce off each other. But with only a few exceptions, Mascots' characters stay in their own bubbles for the duration of the film.
And this time around, their interests in the competition aren't just mockably earnest, they're actually fairly relatable. One character (Tom Bennett) wants to escape the excessively controlling dad who was team mascot before him. Another (Posey) wants a final shot at glory before aging out of a role she's had for seven years. For a third (Christopher Moynihan), mascotting is the one thing that makes him feel wanted and accepted. There's a sincerity to all of this that works directly against Guest's usual archness and glibness. Some of the characters are outsized and silly — Lynch basically reprises her hateful Glee coach, Willard plays his usual dim, hilarious blowhard, and Coolidge is as garishly game as ever. But too many of these characters would fit comfortably into a straight uplift sports-underdog doc, with almost nothing in their makeup outrageous enough to reveal their comic origins.
Mascots' biggest issue is the third act, in which Guest just sits back for a long time and just observes the mascot competition. The acts range from surreal — one duo consists of a rabbi character dancing with a green inchworm character for some reason — to authentically cute, funny, and surreal. But people dancing in costume for minutes on end isn't nearly as surprising and rewarding as the usual sharp one-upsmanship banter of Guest's films. And Guest actually seems invested in who wins the Fluffies, and how victory will improve their lives. After a decade of mocking devoted small-timers on specific circuits, Guest seems to have drunk their Kool-Aid.
At one point, Woods' character shouts at Baker's, "You're at the wrong event! You don't belong at the Fluffies! You belong at the Succubus Olympics!" Mascots could use more of this kind of bite: more goofy than truly ugly, but just sharp enough to acknowledge a little conflict in the characters' lives, and a little humor to head off all the bland, cheery goodwill.
This review originally appeared on September 13, 2016 in conjunction with the film's screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has been republished to coincide with the film's Netflix premiere.