Shtick. It’s one of my favorite words. It’s fun to say, and any time someone uses it they instantly sound like a 1920s venue owner talking down to a performer in a thick, yiddish accent. All creative people have a shtick, i.e. a routine, talent or style of performance. After you’ve seen someone’s creative output a few times, it becomes fairly easy to define their shtick. Audiences know exactly what kind of performance they’re going to get from a talented actor like Kevin Spacey. Woody Allen movies have a cadence and rhythm that they’re familiar with. They know a Kevin Hart movie is going to lean heavily on his diminutive size and deal with physical comedy. The problem with someone’s shtick is, it’s very rarely used to describe something in a positive way.
Take Christopher Guest, who has made a career of producing ensemble comedies that revolve around a variety socially awkward or affected characters in ridiculous situations told through a fake documentary-style of filmmaking. He seized the creative reins into the filmmaking world in 1996 with his community theater satire “Waiting for Guffman.” Over 20 years later, he keeps making the same basic film. To build on our horse metaphor: Instead of riding in with his hands firmly on the creative reins, he’s dragging a bovine corpse across the finish line and flaying its bloated hide with a rider’s crop.
To be fair, “Mascots” is a rather inoffensive comedy that never feels more than an interesting premise taken into very familiar territory. Guest has assembled a number of familiar faces who have been appearing in practically every single one of his productions. Gifted performers like Jane Lynch, Fred Ward, Bob Balaban, and Elizabeth Banks, who are talented comedians that seem to enjoy the broad comedies Guest creates. “Mascots” takes us into the world of … wait for it … mascots, and an international competition to find out who is the best athletic supporter.
Guest seems obsessed with conventions and awards. His most brilliant offering, “Best in Show” feels like the tightest, most complete version of the same story he continues to tell over and over again. His other movies, like “A Mighty Wind” and “For Your Consideration,” are practically carbon copies of one another; all of them covering the exact same story points and emotional journey. There are always one or two earnest souls looking for some kind of redemption amidst the craziness. This time around we get a horrific looking mascot armadillo who wants desperately to be taken seriously. This seems difficult given a costume made out of duct tape and a dance routine that looks like the senior project of a yellow-jacket-addicted German choreographer. The comedy from Guest’s films is usually based on outlandish obsessions people have with competition or nostalgia, and the quirky people whose entire existence is predicated on being validated by their ridiculous peers.
There are a few funny moments in “Mascots”; most of them coming from Jane Lynch, who carries a lot of the weight that Catherine O’Hara used to in Guest’s zany offerings. The other real comedy bits come from Chris O’Dowd (“The IT Crowd”) as the “bad boy” of the mascot community; a hard drinking, hard partying son-of-a-bitch who revels in being the toughest SOB in a world of fluffies.
“Mascots” premiered on Netflix this week as their latest attempt to take over America’s viewing habits. It’s interesting that they’re financing artists like Christopher Guest, but it kind of fits into their model. Guest has a very predictable shtick. There are those who are fans of his work, but I’m hard pressed to believe “Mascots” would exist without the niche-heavy programming of Netflix. This is a movie that feels like the copy of a copy of a copy. It’s like being in a conversation with someone who keeps repeating the same clever quip over and over again. Even after everyone declares “We get it,” he continues to repeat the joke. Only this time it’s louder and slower, and before you know it, the thing once found to be clever begins to feel grating. In fact, the constantly returning ensemble of Guest’s films are beginning to feel like those community theater mainstays he was making fun of in “Waiting for Guffman.”