Let me be upfront about this: If you’re a devotee of Christopher Guest’s other improvised mockumentaries–Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration–you’ll find plenty to like about Mascots. It follows the Guestian formula to a tee, which proves to be both a strength and a weakness. In the first act, we meet his wacky cast of characters: third-tier mascots for fictitious sports teams. Scattered across the country (and one in England), these lovable losers leave home and travel to California to test their skills against the best in their field. In the end, most will remain losers, although a few might have found a little happiness in having made it through the gauntlet.
Not content to rest entirely on his laurels, Guest has brought in some talented newcomers to join his company of improv experts. Maybe he needed an injection of fresh energy, or maybe the thought of Eugene Levy dancing in a pair of tights was just too much. The stand-out youngsters are Zach Woods (Silicon Valley) and Sarah Baker (The Campaign), playing a bickering husband and wife who work as a team for a minor-league baseball squad owned by Bob Balaban and Jennifer Coolidge (both severely underused here). Woods and Baker are both improv experts, and although they come from different schools (Woods is UCB, Baker is Groundlings), they quickly find the same hilariously dysfunctional wavelength.
Other newcomers include Chris O’Dowd as the self-proclaimed “bad boy of sports mascottery” (a phrase that no actor on the planet could deliver as well as O’Dowd), who drinks, smokes, and screws with such dedication, it’s unclear why he’s participating in the competition at all. Susan Yeagley (Parks and Recreation) shows up as the supportive sister to Parker Posey’s perennial loser who is forced into the limelight in the final moments. In addition to Posey, other Guest company members like Fred Willard, Ed Begley, Jr., Jane Lynch, and John Michael Higgins all show up for a couple funny scenes. The film’s lone emotional arc belongs to Tom Bennett, so hilarious in Whit Stillman’s Love + Friendship earlier this year. Here, he is a British soccer mascot trying to find his way out from under his father’s shadow. For him, mascottery is a family tradition, an idea so ludicrous it almost ceases to be funny.
And that’s the problem with Mascots as a whole. Its concept drifts so far from reality that there is nothing to satirize. In Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, Guest imagined a world of weirdos existing behind activities that are treated with the utmost seriousness. In Mascots and Waiting for Guffman (which, I’ll admit, was revelatory at the time but hasn’t aged well), he and his cast still get to unleash their inner silly, but their targeted fruit is so low-hanging that the laughs offer no catharsis.
It reminds me of what Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator Larry David once said about his preference for jokes that are hard to pull off. “If you take the dive that has a high degree of difficulty and you land it, you get more points from the judges,” he once said. “But if you take the easy dive, you don’t get anywhere.” It’s a lesson Guest forgot to heed in Mascots. It contains jokes of the lowest possible degree of difficulty, and the laughs it earns from them are frustratingly fleeting. Unless you’re a child, you probably already consider mascots to be a bit of a self-aware joke, and the idea of a mascot competition is even more ludicrous. In other words, how do you mock something that already mocks itself?
Rating: 2.5 Oversized Burrito Costumes out of 5
Featured image: Netflix