For your consideration
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Nothing scuppers comedy like desperation. Comedy that reeks of "like me, love me, laugh with me" invariably repels rather than attracts. Few recent comedies are as eager to please as For Your Consideration, the latest mild farce from the team that brought the very enjoyable Best In Show, the charming albeit less funny A Mighty Wind, and, further back, the fetish object that is This Is Spinal Tap.
Perhaps its some kind of subtle comment - for For Your Consideration is set amidst what by popular reputation is the neediest community in the Western World - Hollywood. Is Hollywood really as needy as we - trudging along in considerably less glamorous jobs and locales - would like to believe? Judging from Rob Long and the various Hollywood memoirists whose litanies of insecurity in victory, bitter resentment in defeat litter the shelves, even more so.
And of course, the film's release, on this side of the Atlantic at least, is timed to coincide with "awards season". The title reflects this, and is indicative of the degree to which the inner workings of the media have expanded out to become pop culture. Just as The West Wing plays on our desire to political insiders, and sundry medical dramas and reality shows play on our desire to be insiders in those fields, the title For Your Consideration is a neat little joke that plays to the wannabe insider in us all. Unfortunately from the filmmakers' point of view, this is probably as insiderish as the movie gets - and these days audiences are rather more aware of the inner workings of Tinseltown than in the past, as discussed below.
The sad thing is that For Your Consideration begins as a likeable enough little piece, with a predictable albeit endearing collection of has-beens, never-weres and wannabes involved in the making of 'Home For Purim', a Yiddish family drama set for some reason in the South. Cue much hilarity (well, much mild amusement) at the Yiddish phrases that pepper what is a sub-sub-Tennesse Williams melodrama of a dying but all the more stereotypical Yiddish momma and her children.
Offscreen, the principals in the film-within-a-film are the main focus of the drama. Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara) is a faded star of the past - a benign version of the Sunset Boulevard archetype. When Hack is told by a cameraman that somewhere on the Internet a rumour links her with an Academy Award nomination, she steadily begins to seek more and more assurance and reassurance about this possibility. This Academy Award mania begins to spread to the rest of the cast - Parker Posey, easily the best performer on show, as she combines comic timing with the genuine vulnerability that the other actors seem to aspire to, is next to be caught up in the web-based gossip. Then genial Harry Shearer, a veteran actor best known for playing a frankfurter in ads and encumbered with a particularly incompetent agent (Eugene Levy), is linked to the little golden man, and much backbiting ensues.
There's a wearying quality to the cavalcade of stereotypes that populates the film. We have the writers, angry at their artistic vision being compromised until their mouths are stuffed with gold. We have a ditzy heiress dabbling in production. We have an agent reminiscent of Will Ferrell's Ron Burgundy. We have Ricky Gervais playing David Brent, except in Hollywood. But For Your Consideration really begins to lose it (whatever "it" it had in the first place) when the film-within-a-film wraps, and we jump forward to the pre-Oscar publicity season.
O'Hara, Shearer and Posey are the main focus of the buzz. O'Hara is shown with absurdly over-the-top Botox, Shearer appears on an excruciating hip-hop TV show, and Posey is humiliated on a gross-out Howard Stern-style radio phone-in. This is the point at which a strange savagery enters the mood of the film. There is a displeasing relish to the gusto with which the film humiliates its cast - especially when the nominations are announced.
Fred Williard reprises a similar role to all his other roles - the loud-voiced, militantly and blessedly ignorant announcer figure. Williard's schtick is very much of the little-goes-a-long-way variety. Here Williard is the co-host of an Entertainment Tonight style show, which after the nominees for the Academy Awards are announced embarks on a quest to buttonhole the non-nominees. At this point the humiliation passes the point of being comfortable to watch, even in a deliberately over-the-top satire of Hollywood. Not to
Does comedy always have to have a victim? Does comedy have about it an inherent cruelty? The satires made by the team behind this film have been most notable for their geniality. A Mighty Wind and Best in Show mocked the worlds depicted, but there was a gentleness and even respect to this mockery. Why does For Your Consideration feel so different, so mean-spirited?
Some of it is to do with the very gentleness of the comedy early on. While the folk music and dog grooming worlds have an endearing quality of themselves, we are so used to vicious Hollywood satires that one in which the main vice exhibited by the characters is a childish overconcern with being nominated for an Oscar will seem tame. These characters do not deserve the later humiliation foisted on them.
Also, we are used to dramas that make us feel like insiders, and For Your Consideration simply does not ring true. The naivete exhibited about the Internet by the characters is inconceivable, and the uncoached responses of the humiliated non-nominees do not chime with what we all know about the carefully gracious speeches of the defeated of award ceremonies.
Perhaps the appearance of Ricky Gervais is the biggest clue to what went wrong. The Office exemplifies the kind of cringe comedy that thrives on artfully depicted humiliation. For Your Consideration feels like a crisis of confidence on the part of the filmmakers, an attempt to make a cringe comedy when the instincts of those involved run more to slightly goofy, slighty quirky, slightly childish even comedy.
It would be heartening to believe that non-malevolent comedy is possible - and one hopes that this ensemble recover something of their confidence and return to the path they have followed in the past.