Folkin' A! Spinal Tap unplugged

Fans of Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show don't have to be told to see A Mighty Wind. It will take a court order to keep them away.

A Mighty Wind is slicker, not as laugh-out-loud funny as its predecessors, but it's just as wonderful in its way. Director Christopher Guest co-wrote the script outline with Eugene Levy again, and the dialogue was improvised by the cast.

The ever-expanding repertory company, 12 of whom appeared in one or both previous comedies (and Harry Shearer, making it a Spinal Tap reunion), has actually gotten too big. While each makes an indelible impression, there's not enough time to develop all the characters and situations.

The subject is folk music and the reunion of three groups from the 1960s for a Town Hall memorial concert for impresario Irving Steinbloom (1920-2003). It's hastily assembled by Steinbloom's anal son Jonathan (Bob Balaban) to take advantage of an open date at the venue. A live telecast is arranged– on Public Television, natch (where this film should play marvelously during pledge drives).

The easiest group to book is the New Main Street Singers (think New Christy Minstrels), the still-performing latest incarnation of a "neuftet," including one original member (Paul Dooley), one second-generation Singer (perky Parker Posey), and mystical married couple John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch (she's a former porn star), who worship colors.

We don't learn much background (or foreground, for that matter) about the Kingston Trio-like Folksmen, except that they were formed in 1961 when the bass (Harry Shearer) and tenor (Christopher Guest) known as the Twobadours met the baritone (Michael McKean) they needed to fill out their sound. Long separated, they reunite without conflict.

Providing the film's nail-biting suspense elements are Mitch & Mickey, the lovebirds (Ian & Sylvia? Mimi & Richard Farina?) who brought romance to folk music and whose climactic kiss was as eagerly anticipated as that of t.A.T.u. today.

Mitch (Eugene Levy) has never fully recovered from the nervous breakdown he suffered after the act's violent breakup. Mickey (Catherine O'Hara) is a happy housewife whose husband (Jim Piddock) makes catheters for a living and is a model train enthusiast.

The first question is whether Mitch will agree to the reunion and the second whether he'll be able to keep it together for the performance, but the big question is whether they'll do their famous kiss. Place your bets.

Taking time away from developing some of these characters and letting more jokes build is the necessity of finding roles for several other actors, whether they fit into the plot or not. Ed Begley Jr. plays a TV producer who hails from Sweden but speaks in Yiddishisms. Michael Hitchcock is the Town Hall events coordinator who has to deal with Jonathan's controlling behavior. Fred Willard manages the New Main Street Singers, but has never gotten over his days as the star of a short-lived '70s sitcom. ("It only lasted a year, but that's how you build a cult.")

Most extraneous are publicists Jennifer Coolidge and Larry Miller, but Coolidge comes up with the funniest line in the movie.

The songs are the most perfect aspect of A Mighty Wind, pastiches of every folk song you've ever heard. Each line contains twisted clich├ęs that sound familiar but aren't quite, especially the last line of the title song: "A mighty wind is blowin'... It's blowin' peace and freedom, It's blowin' you and me."

If you wonder why Peter, Paul and Mary have been spared, stick around for the epilogue.

This could be the year the talented Levy gets the recognition he deserves. He attracted a lot of attention in the hugely popular Bringing Down the House, is excellent here in a very different role and will show up this summer in American Wedding and Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd.

More hoot than hootenanny, A Mighty Wind is a step down from Guest/Levy's previous efforts but a step up from most screen comedies.