Sports metaphors seem particularly appropriate in a review of Mascots, so let’s start with this one: Does any comedy director have a deeper bench of great actors than Christopher Guest? Some of Guest’s most dependable stars didn’t show up for this film — Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara chief among them — but Mascots still features Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Chris O’Dowd, Ed Begley Jr., Bob Balaban, Don Lake, Michael Hitchcock, John Michael Higgins, and Jim Piddock (who also co-wrote the film with Guest). That’s before you add Guest himself in a small role, plus newcomers like Zach Woods, Sarah Baker, and Susan Yeagley.

There are an obscene number of funny people in this movie — though Mascots is not as obscenely funny as that Murderers’ Row of comedy talent would suggest. The biggest laughs come from little asides; the peculiar details and character quirks that Guest and his brilliant cast toss off in the middle of busy scenes of expository dialogue — like the character who talks about attending “Rhea Perlman Middle School” or the one who works at the “Gluten-Free Channel.” Not all the jokes land, and not all the characters nail their spotlight moments, but enough do.

The premise, structure, and style are nearly identical to Guest’s fake documentary Best in Show, with a competition among sports mascots in the place of a dog show. The eccentric contestants include Woods and Baker as a unhappy married couple, Tom Bennett as a British butcher who inherited his costume and schtick from his overbearing father (Piddock), and O’Dowd as a lascivious hockey mascot known as “The Fist.” When they all arrive at the World Mascot Championships to vie for the coveted “Fluffy Awards” they meet Lynch and Begley Jr., former mascots turned judges, and Willard as a mascot coach who encourages a contestant who plays a plumber (Christopher Moynihan) to add more realism to his routine. This advice leads to scene where a little person, dressed as a turd, dances to techno music — a combination of words I confess I never expected to use in my career as a professional film critic.

Every Christopher Guest movie climaxes in a centerpiece sequence where you see the characters in their natural element, like the folk concert in A Mighty Wind or the dog-walkers squaring off in Best in Show. In most cases, these are the highlights of their respective films; the parts that deliver the sharpest gags and the payoffs to all the characters’ arcs. Mascots’ big competition never comes together in the same way. After all the build-up, the mascots’ routines aren’t very funny or inspired. (The Fist’s big tribute to hockey fights is the worthy exception.)  A few of the routines don’t even make sense. I have no clue why a guy dressed as a Hasidic rabbi does a lengthy interpretive dance with someone in a worm costume. 

Maybe the cast, great as it is, is actually too large; there’s barely enough time to invest in anyone’s quest to become the champion. Maybe there’s inherently very little at stake in a contest to determine who is the best person at dancing around in an outlandish costume. Either way, there’s very little tension during the Fluffies — and anyone paying attention will be able to guess the eventual winner long before it’s announced.

At its best, Mascots boils down to Guest playing the hits the way the Rolling Stones do out on tour. You know what you’re going to hear at Stones concert, and you know what you’re going to see at a Christopher Guest film: Lovable misfits, a disparate ensemble that comes together at a big event, and inspired improvisation. The formula is familiar in a way that’s satisfying, and the cast is so large that I’ve gone this entire review without mentioning my favorite: Jennifer Coolidge, who delivers Mascots’ funniest line in her one big scene. (It’s a withering insult about her husband disguised as a compliment.) Parker Posey has a couple great scenes too; so do Lynch and Begley. It’s just too bad the ending is such a letdown. To put this in terms Christopher Guest fans will understand: Mascots isn’t as good as Best in Show but it’s definitely better than For Your Consideration.