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By Coury Turczyn

AUGUST 25, 1997:  For the rest of his life, and probably far beyond, Christopher Guest will be remembered for one defining role: Nigel Tufnel in This is Spinal Tap. As the moody guitar genius in Rob Reiner's mock rockumentary, he captured whole new levels of rock 'n' roll pomposity--he wasn't just lampooning self-obsessed rock stars, he was a self-obsessed rock star. Likewise, in his new fake documentary Waiting for Guffman (R), Guest skewers the egos of would-be thespians--but also reveals himself to be one of the most underrated comedic directors on video store shelves today.

The great danger of fake documentaries (CB4: The Movie) is that their comedic routines won't appear lifelike enough to be funny--if it's obviously a bunch of actors just pretending to be "real" people, the charade loses its punch. But Guffman never falters with its cast of improv experts: Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara from SCTV, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, and Brian Doyle-Murray. Like Spinal Tap, Guffman is a series of interviews and candid scenes about a group of people struggling to succeed--in this case, a community theater group putting together a play about the history of its small Missouri town.

Guest stars as Corky, a master thespian recently returned from New York to "restart his life" and devote himself to teaching the art of acting. With his awful toupee, "bohemian" outfits, and bitchy outlook, it's soon apparent that Corky is much better at playing the role of master thespian than actually being one. Nevertheless, he captures the fancy of the town and his cast as he tries to create a production that will take them "straight to Broadway!" Of course, it all ends in a shambles, but the journey there is hilarious, particularly Corky's tantrums ("I'm so mad, I'm going to go home and bite my pillow!"). The only letdown is that Guest made Waiting for Guffman so short--surely there's another half-hour of material.

Less anarchic is Guest's directorial debut, The Big Picture (PG-13), starring Kevin Bacon. Although it, too, looks behind the scenes of showbusiness types, it's a more traditional comedy with a few nice quirks. Bacon plays a newly graduated film maker who finds himself sucked into the Hollywood system, becoming more of a would-be "player" than director. Along the way, he loses everything he held dear, selling his soul to a variety of producers, actresses, and executives. Although Guest doesn't appear in The Big Picture, it still has flashes of his dark wit--look for an over-the-top cameo by Martin Short as an agent.

Finally, there's Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, a campy remake Guest directed for cable TV, starring Daryl Hannah. It's worth a few laughs, but, uh, you might wait for it to show up on TV (broadcast, that is).

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