"It was an honor just to be almost nominated," Harry Shearer says in For Your Consideration, Christopher Guest's from-the-bottom-up look at Oscar hype. Taking its name from the trade-paper ads that movie studios use to nudge the Academy in the right direction, For Your Consideration introduces us to a cast of characters so low on the Hollywood food chain that they seem to inhabit a different movie era altogether - the 1940s, say, when one can almost (but not quite) imagine a studio head giving the green light to a picture about a Southern Jewish family kvetching its way through World War II. (Working title: Home for Purim.) But today? Not likely. For perhaps the first time in his career, Guest is asking us to suspend our disbelief rather than snatching it from us when we're not looking.
But if you're willing to let it go, there's plenty of pleasure to be had. After walking the dog in Best of Show and strumming the guitar in A Mighty Wind - two rather esoteric milieus - Guest has returned to the small-town theatrics of Waiting for Guffman. It's just that the small town, in this particular case, is Hollywood. The cast and crew of Home for Purim, including Guest himself as the Corky St. Clair-like director, have a toehold in this business called show. What they don't have - wouldn't you know it? - is talent, that and basic competence. But like so many of Guest's creations, they have delusions of competence, not to mention grandeur. And when a dubious Internet rumor of possible Oscar nominations starts spreading, like a viral infection, through the studio backlot, it's as if Guffman has finally arrived.
He has arrived, in the form of Ricky Gervais' oily producer, but he has a request. Could the still-in-production film "tone down the Jewishness" - not the "Jewish" per se, just the "ness"? Needless to say, Home for Purim soon becomes Home for Thanksgiving. And For Your Consideration becomes a tragicomic reminder of just how low some people will stoop for a chance to soar so high. The saddest of them all may be Catherine O'Hara's Marilyn Hack, who plays the dying matriarch in Home for Whatever. A hilariously bad actress, Marilyn has somehow held on to the Ladder of Success' bottom rung, and when the word gets out that she might land a Best Actress nod, she becomes slightly unhinged, squeezing in all the plastic surgery she's been putting off until she was caught up on her mortgage payments.
O'Hara, a vastly underappreciated comedian, finds notes of desperation and sadness in this post-menopausal Lucy Carmichael. And she sets the tone for the rest of the film, which has you laughing one moment, swallowing the lump in your throat the next. The laughs are courtesy of a cast that's become something of a stock company for Guest, many of them having honed their improvisatory skills with Second City and the Groundlings back in the day. And it's just nice to see so many mature performers work that funny bone - a gentle poke here, a major fracture there. Standouts (to the extent anyone's allowed to stand out) include Fred Willard as a Pat O'Brien-like TV-show host who's trying to pass as half his age and John Michael Higgins as a publicist who speaks only in non sequiturs.
Then there's Jennifer Coolidge as a moneybags producer who's on a frequency - a very dim frequency - all her own. Ideally, Coolidge would have been given more screen time. And you have to wonder whether Guest, in adding to his stock company over the years without a lot of winnowing - Eugene Levy, Michael McKean and Parker Posey are all back for more - hasn't spread himself (and them) a little thin. There's also a sense in which the movie, which has the airy lift of sketch comedy, is too fragile to hold up the pathos that creeps into the frame, like a lengthening shadow. But Guest clearly knows exactly what he's going for. The cockeyed optimists of Waiting for Guffman have given way to the cockeyed pessimists of For Your Consideration. They're older, even wiser, but not a damn bit smarter.