Those who have casually witnessed the televised dog shows on ESPN often wonder what the pets' masters are like when the cameras aren't rolling. Are they pamperers, disciplinarians, buddies or just plain freaks?
Christopher Guest provides these answers in his new movie "Best in Show," a documentary spoof that holds up alongside the talented filmmaker's previous works. Writer/director Guest is still finding new topics to skewer using the genre he helped popularize, first as the dim British guitarist in "This is Spinal Tap" and then the enormously gay choreographer in "Waiting for Guffman." Here Guest portrays Harlan Pepper, a North Carolina fish and tackle store owner whose bloodhound Hubert is the only thing he loves more than his ventriloquist dummy.
Pepper is one of many eccentrics who are tailed on their way to the Mayflower Dog Show in Philadelphia (a fictional nod to the Westminster contest in New York ironically the one sporting event to NOT play that brainless song "Who Let the Dogs Out" during competition). Also eyeing the prize are dorky salesman Gerry Fleck (Eugene Levy) and his floozy wife, Cookie (Catherine O'Hara), whose past sexual partners surface at inopportune times; a campy gay couple (Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins), who coddle twin shih tzus while hurling fashion insults at their fellow competitors ("She looks like a cocktail waitress on an oil rig"); an Anna Nicole Smith-like gold digger (Jennifer Coolidge), who sits next to her ancient husband (Patrick Cranshaw) and explains their shared interests, "We both love soup, the outdoors and snow peas"; and in the film's most complex relationship, a vapid yuppie couple (Parker Posey and the underrated Michael Hitchcock) whose cherished weimaraner Beatrice "has been showing signs of depression" since watching the increasingly uptight pair have sex.
Inevitably, "Best in Show" must be compared to 1996's "Guffman" because the project features so many of the same actors, was also written by Guest and Levy and adheres to a similar structure. As funny as "Guffman" was in its look at a group of citizens in mythical Blaine, Mo., putting on a 150th anniversary town play, there was something troubling about the whole endeavor. The film pegged Midwesterners as clueless imbeciles totally isolated from commonplace pop culture, so whole segments were more cringe-inducing than they were funny.
"Best in Show" features an ensemble even more dysfunctional than in "Guffman," and its barbs show no signs of regional stereotypes or classism. All walks of life, from the poor to the wealthy, from the East Coast to the South, are equal targets. The film elicits deeper laughs because of this broader material.
Guest is still susceptible to letting a few scenes linger too long the byproduct of films formed from improvisation. But the director's biggest miscalculation concerns the role of an ill-informed TV commentator (Fred Willard) covering the Mayflower show. Providing inappropriate one-liners while his erudite British co-host (Jim Piddock) must suffer along with his remarks, Willard's character is meant to be irritating, but he is overused so much during the film's finale that he becomes distracting. His zingers progressively start to fall flat, and, even worse, there's no comeuppance to his galling behavior.
Fortunately, his is the only character whose material wanes. The SCTV veterans Levy and O'Hara are brilliant, with the latter offering yet another role to establish her as the comedic heir to Madeleine Kahn. Even the bit players (such as reliable comedian Larry Miller as one of Cookie's grabby ex-boyfriends) add just the right amount of texture to an already overloaded cast.
One of the ways Guest allows his actors to range so freely is by avoiding depicting the dogs as quirky. They're just presented as animals, which makes certain scenes all the funnier because of the personalities and moods that their owners ascribe to them that simply don't exist. Witness the scene where Posey and Higgins go into hysterics about not being able to find their dog's squeeze toy, acting as if a sick infant had just lost its heart medicine. As the camera zooms in on the dog, it's apparent the only thing upsetting the pet is seeing his owners' incessant arguing.
The film will feel familiar to anyone who has seen "Guffman," especially in the arc and resolution of the plot. But "Best in Show" isn't trying to reinvent a genre, it's simply there to dig up a few laughs. In that category, it's a prize-winning endeavor.