A Mighty Wind

dir. Christopher Guest

Now playing at various theaters.

With each successive film from Christopher Guest's improvisational ensemble, the subject matter becomes narrower and the formula becomes more rigid. After Waiting for Guffman's hilariously cruel vivisection of community theater--the only thing the characters have done to deserve this cruelty, it seems, is to want to be creative--and the pet-owner personality-disorder parade of Best in Show, Guest & Co. have turned their absurdist satirical sights on an even more parochial target: the folk music revival of the late '50s and early '60s.

For those unfamiliar with the period, it was a combination bohemian and back-to-nature scene that spawned Bob Dylan (who later rejected its strictures and became great) but was most famous for now largely forgotten artists like Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul & Mary. All these folks enjoyed a brief window of unlikely fame as good old-fashioned, honest-to-Guthrie folk music became the pop trend of the moment. Then the moment passed, rock 'n' roll took over, and the folk revivalists, real and pseudo alike, drifted into the ether.

A Mighty Wind is set in the present day, when the death of the agent who discovered some of the revival's biggest stars brings the acts together for a reunion concert at New York's Town Hall. Preparations for the event, which is organized by the late impresario's control-freak son (Bob Balaban), frame the movie, which, like Guest's two prior films, culminates in a one-time-only performance. The fictitious groups all correspond to actual performers from the folk era: the Folksmen (Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean) are the Kingston Trio; Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) are Richard & Mimi Fariña, with traces of Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, and Richard & Linda Thompson; the New Main Street Singers (Paul Dooley, Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, et al.) are the New Christy Minstrels; and so on.

All this background aside, the film is an excuse for some very funny actors to improvise characters as the cameras roll. As with Guffman and Best in Show, the results are alternately hilarious and flat. So much of what makes these movies enjoyable rests on the rhythm of the improv, which is why the increasingly rigid formula is both troublesome and necessary: It's the skeleton that allows these world-class performers to let loose (Fred Willard once again steals the show). The problem is that it's become so familiar that, taken together, the three films feel like one long, predictable sketch.