The Boston Phoenix October 12 - 19, 2000

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Three Stars

Second Best

Guest taps into a dog's life with Show

by Peter Keough

BEST IN SHOW, Directed by Christopher Guest. Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. With Fred Willard, Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Jim Piddock, and Bob Balaban. A Warmer Bros. Pictures release. At the the Fenway and the West Newton and in the suburbs.

Unlike rock musicians or amateurs in regional theater, dogs don't have delusions of grandeur. Which makes them unlikely candidates for a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Actually, the owners are the featured characters in Best in Show. No animal's dignity was injured in the making of the movie; for the humans, on the other hand, it's a tough call -- as in Spinal Tap (directed by Rob Reiner) and Waiting for Guffman, Guest's previous puncturings of our species's vanities and absurdities, there's a fine line between cleverness and contempt. In the end, heart wins out over ridicule. Show might not elicit as much empathy as Spinal Tap or Guffman -- the characters aren't as deep and the narrative isn't as strong -- and it might not plumb the same depths of hilarity, but it's still one of the best comedies of the year.

The premise seems a reconfiguration of Guffman, in which disparate, deluded mediocrities collect around a dream of kitschy transcendence. In Guffman, however, the participants are all from the same community and are putting on a show; they've already forged a bond, and their own hearts and souls are what's thrown up there on the stage. Here the characters, from all over the country, are united only by their common obsession with canines. And the dogs are their surrogates -- pampered, pristinely groomed, but oddly without much personality, they're poised to take the spotlight at Philadelphia's fictitious Mayflower Dog Show. But the real stories, those of the flawed and far from pedigreed masters, are backstage and episodic.

They are, in some cases, also disappointing. Among the duds are the Swans, Meg (Parker Posey, whose brittle indie star may be crumbling) and Hamilton (Michael Hitchcock), a pair of yuppies whose characterization doesn't go much farther than their matching braces, obsession for catalogues, and neurotic abrasiveness. Their skittish Weimaraner Beatrice makes her appearance on a psychiatrist's couch; it's the film's first gag, and it's not auspicious.

Neither is there much hope for Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), a bland bombshell who's married, Anna Nicole Smith-style, to a moribund millionaire but whose real passion is for her poodle Rhapsody in White and her dog's trainer, Christy (Jane Lynch, a cross between Anne Heche and David Bowie). As with the Swans, there's not much going on here except for nasty ambition, confused desires, and class stereotypes. These are the bad guys, and Guest has a hard time making them funny.

More entertaining are the frivolous contestants, like the campy gay couple Scott (John Michael Higgins) and Stefan (Spinal Tap veteran Michael McKean) with their impossibly coiffed shih-tsu Agnes, and those who are the salt of the earth, like Harlan Pepper (Guest himself), who's as hangdog as his beautiful bloodhound Hubert. Stealing the show, though, are Cookie (Catherine O'Hara) and Gerry Fleck (co-writer Eugene Levy), a couple as down-to-earth as their sawed-off Norwich terrier Winky. Gerry's hapless good nature and perpetual discomfort (there's a running foot gag that's worth the price of admission) and Cookie's unpretentiously checkered and inescapable past allow Guest to engage in his funniest flights of fancy, as when a visit to one of Cookie's former boyfriends ends with Winky held hostage on a garage roof.

Unlike Guffman, though, Show never really comes together. The characters remain separate entities even through the anticlimactic contest, and the documentary aspect is more of a device to string together comic bits than an organic part of the film. Thank God, or perhaps dog, for Fred Willard, who appears midway through as Buck Laughlin, an irrepressible and triumphantly ignorant TV commentator. With his stiff-upper-lipped colleague Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock) as a marvelous foil, Buck takes his patter from crushing banality to transcendent surreality. Short of turning the whole thing over to the dogs, I'd name Willard the best in this show.

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