Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Best in Show Movie Review

Christopher Guest got a taste for the so-called mockumentary sub-genre when he wrote and starred in Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, the classic comedy that pretends to be a documentary about an 80s hair metal band. Starting in the mid-90s, Guest began writing and directing his own mockumentary style films beginning with Waiting for Guffman, which focuses on a small town community theater production. My favorite of his films, however, is Best in Show, about the quirky characters involved in the fictional Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show in Philadelphia.

Though Guest is credited as screenwriter along with comedian Eugene Levy, the majority of the dialogue was developed through improvisation on set. Guest’s troupe of actors includes Levy, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins and Michael Hitchcock. They fill the roles of various players and bigwigs in and around the dog show. Structured as a faux documentary, it follows several dog owners and handlers on their way to the Mayflower, while also keeping tabs on a bit of behind-the-scenes at the arena before the main event.

First we meet Meg and Hamilton, a high-strung yuppie couple, and their dog Beatrice. They believe Beatrice has been adversely affected by walking in on them during sex. They are an obvious case of neurotics projecting their own issues onto those around them – in this case a pure bred Weimaraner. Levy and O’Hara play Gerry and Cookie Fleck, the owners of a Norwich Terrier. Gerry is a goofy nerd with possibly less sex appeal than a pile of stones. Cookie, on the other hand, has a past that is a constant reminder to Gerry that he has a lot of competition. She can hardly get a drink in a bar without running into an old boyfriend. McKean and Higgins are the proud owners of a Shih Tsu. And there’s the two-time defending champion Standard Poodle handled by the smug Christy Cummings (Lynch) and owned by the ditzy Sherri Ann Cabot (Coolidge). Some of the biggest laughs come from the dog show’s commentating duo of Jim Piddock and Fred Willard. Piddock’s character offers the expertise while Willard provides the color commentary. He plays the ignorant dope to perfection and has a wonderful and weird set of punch lines, each one zanier and funnier than the last.

They are, in many ways, a cadre of ridiculous characters painted in broad caricatured strokes. But Guest doesn’t let his actors or his audience get off that easily. In spite of their flaws, the majority of the dog owners and handlers turn out to be quite human. Though they provide a great deal to laugh at, they are rarely pushed over the brink so that we also care about them. There’s very little in the way of mean-spiritedness with regard to anyone in the film. The notable exceptions are the risible Meg and Hamilton. Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock let their characters get away from them a little bit, and Guest as director didn’t do enough to rein it in. Their neuroticism is cartoonish to the point of being unbelievable at times. My favorite character might be Harlan Pepper, a good old boy from down south, coming from a long line of bloodhound breeders, played by Guest himself. As a simple man with an avid interest in fly fishing and hunting, Harlan would have been an easy target in the screenplay for derision, but Guest makes him the warmest character in the movie.

This could have been a movie about any important competition because the types are, in many ways, universally recognizable. I’ve never watched the Westminster Dog Show nor do I really have any interest. Best in Show, on the other hand, is endlessly watchable and often hilarious. I have no way of knowing if the people who show dogs in those competitions are ever as eccentric as Gerry and Cookie, as obsessed with winning as Christy, or as insane as Meg and Hamilton, but it doesn’t matter. Guest isn’t making fun of dog shows as much as he is poking fun at the people who participate in them.

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