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.