Is Mascots Too Mean?

Christopher Guest has always been an auteur of the awkward—but his mockumentary formula, in a culture that prizes quirky individualism, mocks a little too hard.

Scott Garfield / Netflix

Is there any more efficient way to insult someone, nowadays, than to accuse them of lacking “self-awareness”? The accusation is paradoxical, sure—it has very little to do with the self, and nearly everything to do with everyone else—but that’s what makes it, in the end, such a good burn. There’s no good comeback: You can’t defend yourself, really, because the real allegation rests in the gaze of others.

Christopher Guest, as a filmmaker, might understand those dynamics better than anyone. His works find their comedy in the interplay between the individual ego and the collective, and they insist that vanity’s absurdities can be located in characters of all kinds, be they dog owners or be-mulleted rock gods or patchouli-clouded folk musicians or [Corky St. Clair voice] the players of The Theater. The mockumentary form that Guest helped to pioneer—a form whose constituent “mock” involves both falsity and farce—works most effectively when it explores the divide between a person and a culture, between people’s senses of themselves and the context in which those senses operate, between “self-awareness” and its laughable absence. The form has become ubiquitous, nowadays—maybe even clichéd—because it is so singularly good at puncturing the people who are inflated with their own hot air.

Which is also to say that Christopher Guest is a master, in today’s terms, of the fine art of imposed privilege-checking. And that would seem to make him a fitting filmmaker for the present moment, a gimlet-eyed soothsayer for a time whose assorted sooths so often involve the examination of identities both individual and collective. That would also seem to make Mascots, Guest’s first directorial effort since 2006’s For Your Consideration, a fitting lens for the world of 2016. What is a mascot, after all, if not an identity in physical form? But while the movie, which premieres Friday on Netflix, may be often quite funny—mascottery is inherently comical—it is also, just as often … uncomfortable. Not because its characters are awkward, but because they are, in the end, not awkward enough. Mascots takes the grotesquely oversized fists of its title characters and uses them, again and again, to punch down.

Mascots is so familiar in its form(ula) as to read almost as a sequel—Best in Show II, basically, only with show in question populated by turtles and octopi and merrily obese hedgehogs instead of petulant Weimaraners. The film adopts the frame of, yes, a mockumentary: It’s another elaborate joke at the expense of people who have the audacity to care deeply about something the film deems to be silly. As before, every character involved is working, in some way, toward a single Climactic Event—in this case, the 8th World Mascot Association Championships in Anaheim, California. Also known, as the event organizer, Langston Aubrey (Michael Hitchcock), explains to Mascots’s invisible filmmaker, as “the Fluffy awards—or as we like to call them, the Fluffies.”

Many of the faces here are familiar from Guests’s previous films. There’s Cindi Babineaux (Parker Posey), an interpretive dance aficionado whose Fluffies character is a kind of post-apocalyptic armadillo. There are Mike and Mindy Murray (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker), a husband-and-wife team who tolerate each other only in the name of their act. There’s the foul-mouthed Canadian Tommy “Zook” Zucarello (Chris O’Dowd), who says things like “a lot of people say I’m the bad boy of mascottery” with a straight face and a snarl. There’s Gabby Monkhouse (Jane Lynch, magisterial as always), a domineering former mascot and current Fluffies judge. There are also Jennifer Coolidge and Bob Balaban and Ed Begley, Jr. and Fred Willard and John Michael Higgins, playing an assortment of characters with cartoonishly Guestian names like Upton French and Jolene Lumpkin. And there’s, yes, Guest himself—appearing again as his Waiting for Guffman character, Corky St. Clair, and suggesting a kind of Guest Cinematic Universe.

So, short of the sadly absent Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, Mascots features basically all the people you’d want—and expect—to show up at Guest’s latest gathering. And, as always, the gathering takes the form of a competition that unites the characters in purpose, bringing unexpected challenges and anticipated victories.

The competition also unfolds, however, in a way that pretty much guarantees that everyone involved—even the winners—will be presented as losers. Another hallmark of a Guest film is the sadness that simmers just below the surface of characters’ stated enthusiasms. And here, again, the humans behind the mascots fit that mold: They aren’t merely vapid or clueless or arrogant without deserving to be, in the manner of David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel; they are also, simply … sad. In every sense.

Broken dreams permeate the proceedings. Cindi Babineaux brags of a previous mascot competition, “I got honorable mention—that’s like first place, but it’s a weird first place.” Her half-sister, Laci (Susan Yeagley), confesses that “I had a dream in my heart”—of becoming a professional cheerleader—before an injury killed it. The film’s first scene features Mike Murray asking his doctor, after they discuss treatment for an injury Mike incurred in the line of mascotting, “Do you prescribe anti-depressants?” Later, Mike will declare, in one of the film’s patented talking-head-style interviews, “They say that those who can’t do, teach; and those who can’t teach, teach gym; and those who can’t teach gym teach drivers’ ed.” Mike pauses. “But the joke’s on them, because I teach gym and drivers’ ed.”

And then there’s Phil Mayhew (Christopher Moynihan), who tells the camera that “in my pretend life, I am a real estate appraiser. But in my real life, I am Jack the Plumber, official mascot for the Beaumont College football team.” And who makes clear that the job “is truly a dream come true for me.”

Phil goes on to explain that

For me, it is that sound! The sound of that crowd. You can’t really hear it from inside the head. But you can hear that there is a sound. And for me, the sound of that sound—that is the greatest sound in the world.

Guest, who tends to prefer improvisation to strict line-reading—he has compared himself to a jazz musician—has also perfected the art of the slow-building punchline, with characters’ monologues weaving and winding until (as with one Mascots character) suddenly they’re telling the camera about what it’s like to have a micropenis. It can be a hypnotic approach; the punchlines in Mascots, though, often build to admissions that are better at evoking pity than laughter. Cindi Babineaux begins an early monologue by bragging that “I can hip-hop, and I can pop,” and ends it with a realization that the Fluffies could be her last brush with mascottery: “This could be my last hurrah,” she says, as a flash of panic crosses her face. “Um, my swan song.”

Similarly, Phil Mayhew tries to make small talk on the field with a couple of the football players he represents as Jack the Plumber. After the awkward chit-chat, they look at each other quizzically: “Who was that guy?” one asks. As Phil retreats from the sidelines, having been snubbed by the athletes he considers it “a dream come true” to represent … he dramatically trips and falls.

It’s a physical version of Guest’s long-winded punchlines—a punctuation and a puncturing in one fell swoop—but it’s also an extremely unnecessary one. It layers a moment of physical humiliation onto the social one Phil has just experienced. It fails to recognize the core challenge that will be at play when  a mockumentary mocks too hard: the fact that, as Molly Ivins put it, “when satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel—it’s vulgar.”

That problem—things getting, well, a little too mockward—isn’t unique to Mascots: Guest has long engaged in a kind of comedy that verges, in the Ivins sense, on vulgarity. Jonathan Rosenbaum called Waiting for Guffman, when it came out, as “amusing if you feel a pressing need to feel superior to somebody.” Variety’s Daniel Kimmel noted, accurately, that in the same film, “Guest’s target... is small-town provincials.” Guest’s films, starting with This Is Spinal Tap—which Rob Reiner directed, but which Guest co-wrote and starred in—have been, over the decades, punching ever downward: They poke fun at the people who, in a world populated by so many things that richly deserve to be laughed at, never fully merit the mockery.

And the mockumentary frame, for all its obvious comedic affordances, means that the people at the butt of the joke never get to answer back. The unseen filmmaker is the one who holds all the power. He’s accusing them of lacking self-awareness; they have no way to reply.

Which isn’t to say that Mascots lacks humor. It’s often pretty funny! Some of the jokes falls flat (the championships are being aired on the Gluten-Free Channel, which “runs in over two cities nationwide”), but some of them are worthy of full-on lols (Zook Zucarello used to be a member of a cult based on the teachings of Michael Landon in Highway to Heaven; Gabby Monkhouse uses the Fluffies as an excuse to hawk her book—which is titled  A Moosing Grace: A mascot’s journey to God … and success in real estate). For the most part, though, the laughs often end up missing the point. They sometimes seem cheap. They are not, themselves, terribly self-aware.

And that makes Mascots read, for all its slick Netflixiness, as vaguely regressive. The film seems to long for a time of monoculture, an age in which some unseen and unarticulated power could decide that a given subculture is silly, and spend 90 minutes of our time proving that point. The film may be set in 2016, or a loose approximation thereof; it may include the obligatorily timely jokes about racist mascots and classist smarm (“I want to work with disadvantaged children,” one character says, “that are really pretty disadvantaged”). Those are the only ways, though, that Mascots, ten years after Guest’s last movie, suggests progress. You’d think that a film like this would want to understand the people inside the costumes; for the most part, though, it prefers to do the far easier thing: to laugh at them.