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Purim Gets a Spinal Tap

The 2007 Academy Awards are scheduled for February 25, exactly one week before Purim. Coincidence? Maybe not. If Christopher Guest’s new film, “For Your Consideration,” is any indication, Purim might be Oscar’s new favorite holiday.

In “For Your Consideration,” a group of actors — earnest, skilled and well intentioned, but definitely B-list material — are quietly toiling away on a small, indie film far from the media spotlight that typically shines on bigger and better features. A mix composed of aging stars who never quite made the big time and young up-and-comers who will probably never quite up-and-come, the humble cast seems content to have paying work as they start filming “Home for Purim,” a hokey melodrama set in small-town Georgia in the 1940s.

Somehow, inexplicably, Oscar buzz starts to build around one of the film’s leads. And then another. And another. Soon enough, this modest feature turns into a hot topic on every “Entertainment Tonight”-type show, and the stars are suddenly being taken seriously in Hollywood.

Never mind that “Home for Purim” — whose irony-free publicity poster pictures the cast members’ heads sprouting from giant hamantaschen —is pure dreck, right down to the hackneyed plot: A family reunites on the ailing matriarch’s favorite Jewish holiday, opens up old emotional wounds, and then resolves them during a rousing musical number about Purim, sung around the dinner table. (Family members, decked out in faux-Persian royal garb, offer accompaniment on guitars and groggers.) The plot may be rickety and the Southern accents unconvincing, but, the critics proclaim, the actors are superb.

Could an actor realistically be nominated for an Academy Award for such schlock? Perhaps. Remember, Shelley Winters was nominated for “The Poseidon Adventure.”

Its camp value only heightened by its achingly earnest execution, “Home for Purim” might sound like the main engine driving the comedy in “For Your Consideration.” But Guest doesn’t work that way. In “Best in Show,” the actual dog show was merely the excuse the director needed to examine the outlandish behavior of the contestants leading up to the big day; in “Waiting for Guffman,” the actual play being performed didn’t matter nearly as much as the lives of the people in it. Similarly, in “For Your Consideration,” the film-within-the-film is simply the catalyst that starts the comedy rolling. The best parts come “off-screen,” when the actors from “Home for Purim” aren’t making the movie.

As the “Purim” matriarch, Catherine O’Hara is the most compelling of the lot. (It’s impossible to keep a straight face as she peppers each over-emoted, over-accented line with Yiddish words.) She plays Marilyn Hack, a burned-out actress who seems resigned to the second tier of stardom until she hears the word “Oscar”; soon Marilyn starts to believe her own buzz, and by the time Oscar season rolls around a few months later, she is emotionally and physically unrecognizable.

Harry Shearer, starring as a washed-up hot-dog pitchman hoping for redemption by playing the “Purim” patriarch, is bitten by the same Oscar bug. And so is Parker Posey, portraying an insecure young actress who gains confidence — too much confidence, perhaps — playing O’Hara and Shearer’s “Purim” daughter. The point here is not that “Purim” is a rotten movie; that’s clear from the outset. The real point is that acclaim changes people, even if that acclaim is shallow, fleeting and unrealistic. Maybe awards shouldn’t matter. But they do.

Guest is famous for providing performers with only brief character sketches and outlines of key scenes, and leaving the dialogue to improvisation. In this case, since “Home for Purim” required a more solid shape to ground the plot, Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy have fleshed out more specifics than before, and the sense of spontaneity suffers a bit for it. There are also, as might be expected, a few too many cheap laughs gained from simply dropping Jewish terms: Posey giving a speech about kreplach and brisket, Guest talking about shooting close-ups of a kugel. Funny, yes, but easy.

That said, this is a fine addition to the Guest canon. And it redefines what Hollywood might consider “holiday fare.” (Forget “The Santa Clause 3” and “Christmas With the Kranks.” Get ready for “National Lampoon’s Purim Vacation.”) Come Oscar night, the hottest item on the menu at the glitziest celebrity parties might very well be hamantaschen.

Wayne Hoffman is the managing editor of the Forward.

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