The small Missouri town of Blaine is on the verge of its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary, and means to celebrate in style. It has a rich history, according to those who live there, so how better to commemorate that than to put on a show? The call goes out to Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest), who moved there from the big city to take up a construction job - why him? Because he has a strong basis in musical theatre, and has directed amateur shows for the town before, so once he has agreed to take on the task he sets about recruiting his stars at auditions in the council hall. There's the local dentist, Dr Pearl (Eugene Levy), the travel agents Ron (Fred Willard) and Sheila Albertson (Catherine O'Hara), a Dairy Queen employee (Parker Posey), someone recreating Raging Bull...
Waiting for Guffman was one of Christopher Guest's improvised comedies, the most famous of which is still This is Spinal Tap, but he continued to hone that style over a number of movies that gathered a cult following among those who found them tickling their funny bone with quite some regularity. Some were more popular than others, but the key to them appeared to be the degree of quotable lines within, even overshadowing the ingenious songs that he and his cohorts penned for them; essentially, if you found examples of dialogue sticking in your mind after you had watched these, sometimes years after, then Guest had succeeded in his aims, particularly if the memory made you chuckle.
It was testament to the imagination and keen ears for a killer line of Guest's casts that they were able to hit the mark as often as they did, though bear in mind that countless hours of footage were shot before being whipped into shape in the editing room, hence there was presumably a lot we did not get to see that ended up ditched from the final result. As often with this talent, there was an uneasy feeling he was inviting us to laugh at a bunch of idiots, and if they were not idiots then they were somehow disadvantaged by their circumstances and that was supposed to be funny as well, or indeed the non-idiots were disadvantaged by the idiots for our giggles. Basically, you wondered if this was one big exercise in looking down on his characters.
Certainly the manner in which the script, or at least outline of the script by Guest and Levy, saw to it that dreams were either crushed or pathetic illusions were even more fragile by the end spoke to a sneering attitude, yet while Corky is some kind of theatre monster who everyone misguidedly invests in not acknowledging they are seriously backing the wrong horse, the other cast members appeared to have a genuine affection for their collection of dreamers and no-hopers, which made that inevitable disappointment strangely poignant. Not least because in many cases they refused to let it hold them back when they would be better off in the jobs they had trained for (though not Posey's thwarted singer and dancer).
This was a tale of how a taste of the bright lights of showbiz can corrupt an innocent, and in that way Corky, as an enabler, was the dark heart of the film. His musical director (Bob Balaban) is plainly far more accomplished than he is in one of the cruellest jokes of the story, and if he had been given his way the musical might have been onto something and justified a visit from one of Corky's contacts from Broadway, yet he is stuck as second fiddle to a man with damaging delusions about his own abilities, damaging to others that is as Corky lands on his feet - unsteadily, but he keeps his balance. That the actual show we see is so accurate in its presentation that it really did look like an amdram performance did mean the first half, the preparation, was funnier than the second, especially when the heartbreak is looming, and the rather sour notes it struck gave the daft humour an edge that not all the film's fans might acknowledge. However, that such pin sharp observations came about from pretty much making up the jokes as they went along was proof of Guest's formidable way of guiding his cast; call him the anti-Corky. Music by Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer: Spinal Tap, really.