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A Mighty Wind

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In “A Mighty Wind,” Christopher Guest experiments with the genre he practically invented, the improvised faux-documentary comedy.

Where “Waiting for Guffman” (1996) and “Best in Show” (2000) held its characters as subjects of ruthless derision, “Mighty Wind” actually has affection for its cast of zanies. It allows for a little tenderness blended in amidst the outrageous non-sequiturs and gut-busting one-liners. It is a film with heart as well as wit.

This will please those who found “Guffman” too abrasive and dark, but should not disappoint those who saw it for what it was, i.e., the best comedy of the 1990s. For while there is a gentler touch underscoring it all, “Mighty Wind” does not neglect the comedy.

Guest, who directed the film and co-wrote the outline (actors improvise their own dialogue) with Eugene Levy, re-teams with “This Is Spinal Tap” co-stars Harry Shearer and Michael McKean as The Folksmen, a ’60s folk group called upon to perform at a concert memorializing music producer Irving Steinbloom.

The Folksmen were a jolly bass/guitar/mandolin trio with album titles like “Singin,'” “Wishin'” and “Pickin’,” and their career has been largely devoid of trouble — a contrast to the other two acts booked for the memorial concert.

The Main Street Singers disbanded in 1971 after 10 years and 30 albums, then later re-emerged as The New Main Street Singers. “There was abuse in my family, but it was mostly of a musical nature,” notes Terry Bohner (John Michael Higgins), one of the “new” members. His wife, Laurie (Jane Lynch), reports in a winking, effervescent manner that she had some experience in making adult films with the group’s originators before being brought on as a singer.

Husband-and-wife team Mitch and Mickey — now divorced — are the third group, and the film’s emotional center. Mitch (Eugene Levy) is befuddled and barely sane since the separation, having embarked on a mid-’70s solo career with songs like “If I Had a Gun” and “Anyone But You.” Mickey (Catherine O’Hara) is somewhat happily remarried to a dippy British train enthusiast and catheter salesman (Jim Piddock), but there is a wounded look in her expression. She and Mitch are a reminder that the characters played closest to reality are liable to be the funniest, most interesting ones.

Just as he did in “Best in Show,” Fred Willard barges into the second half of the film with a storm of hilarious energy behind him. This time he is Mike LaFontaine, the clueless manager of The New Main Street Singers who was a sitcom star for one year in the ’70s and who still clings to his awful catchphrases. His suggestions to the band are uproariously inappropriate, and his contribution to the film is immeasurable.

There are more goofy characters too numerous to mention; if anything, in an effort to use all the Guest favorites, the film has crammed itself with too many people. Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge and Larry Miller are all sadly underused. Guest is said to have shot 80 hours of footage; one suspects the deleted scenes on the DVD will be just as entertaining as the film.

“A Mighty Wind” is sort of about letting go of the past and sort of about finding closure, but it is mostly about making an audience laugh. When Catherine O’Hara sings a song about her husband’s medical supplies at a trade show, you will recognize the spirit of “Guffman,” reborn in a new, kinder frame.

B+ (1 hr., 31 min.; PG-13, one mild profanity, some sexual innuendo, some overheard sexuality.)

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