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Christopher Guest specializes in people who, desperately needing to
feel like somebody but lacking legitimate talent, impersonate achievers. Theyre
karaoke singers. Best in Show is a "mockumentary" (a form that itself is
ripe for lampooning) about a cross-section of American types in the days leading up to and
through the prestigious Mayflower Dog Show. Theres a nerdy salesman (Eugene Levy),
his live-wire wife (Catherine OHara) who cant escape her promiscuous past, a
mopey redneck (Guest), a neurotic yuppie couple (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), a
tony gay couple (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean), and an Anna Nicole Smith
knock-off (Jennifer Coolidge) who uses her ancient husbands money to hire a ringer
in the form of a professional dog-handler (Jane Lynch). The kennel club president (an
underused Bob Balaban), the shows pompous chairman (Don Lake), and two mismatched
announcers (Fred Willard and Jim Piddock) putty in the cracks between the main
All these people are seeking personal validation through the dog show, and they live in a narrow world that extends about three inches from their noses. Thats the movie. Best in Show is just a series of blackout skits in which the characters unwittingly hang themselves with comments that time and again make you think: "What an idiot." You keep waiting for some real meat in the satire, or for the characters to meld together into a unified storylineyou keep waiting for the movie to start. It never does, though, and its a letdown when you realize the only thing at stake is which contestant will win the main prizethe Best in Show. Once thats settled, the movie limps home with an epilogue that sticks out like a white flag.
Why make a movie when you care so little about your story that you dont develop any of the ideas in it? When Levy and OHara check into their hotel, their credit card doesnt work and for a second the movie insinuates that some secret shame resides behind their dippy facade. "Thats the good card," OHara insists, and its a funny linein a stroke it suggests the couples private vocabulary, and how they fly by the seat of their financial pantsbut OHara almost instantly repeats it, and the air begins to leak out of the scene. It goes on leaking, until finally the desk clerk (Ed Begley, Jr., who looks primed to play a real character in a real movie) sticks the couple in a utility closet with the mops and cleansers, and thats it. The couples impoverishment is never mentioned again, nor what may have caused it, and we never even get another view of that closetthe sequence is just an exercise in belittlement.
Waiting for Guffman, Guests previous film and another snow-globe of a movie, didnt leave you with contempt for its charactersits innocuousness made its trivial nature bearable. But Best in Show actually thinks theres something funny in Levys squirming as OHaras past lovers praise her sexual prowess in front of him, or in having OHara, a supposed dog-show veteran, arrive at the Mayflower in a scooped neck dress that forces her to stick her name-tag directly on her chest. Can there be any surer sign that Guest is on automatic pilot than his turning Catherine OHara into an idiotic slut? At least Catherine OHara knows what Catherine OHara can do. The joke in Guests technique is that his characters reveal more about themselves than they realize, and OHara absolutely runs with the idea. Particularly in her early scenes she uses a lightning-quick facial semaphore to bring out layers in her character and the material that no one else can keep up with.
Too many of Best in Shows laughs are strip-mined from Jay Leno monologues (how about all those Starbucks coffee shops, ladies and gentlemen?), and the movies thinness leaves you starved at the end. Only the casts affability and talent saves it from real ugliness. Jane Lynch is economic and precise as the pro handler, and Parker Posey does a couple of hilariously acidic silent burns. Fred Willard and Jim Piddock make a beautiful comedy team as the dog show announcers. Willards thoughtless pronouncements (he wants to liven the show up by putting the dogs in comic costumes, and he fills his patter with risque asides) all but exhaust his British colleagues tactyou can almost hear Piddock biting his tongue. But by the end Posey is confined to an endless, punishingly shrill argument with Hitchcock, and even Willard leaves a bad taste by flogging a baseball metaphor to death. The only ideas that Guest bears down on are the ones that arent worth bringing up in the first place.
Christopher Guest may be the Mel Brooks of his time. Both men build their movies around a tenuous comic vision thats never really filled out, and both shamelessly cannibalize their own situations, characters, and jokes. Here Guest has hung a whole movie on a mere filament of an idea. If his next movie is any slighter than Best in Show, itll blow away like dandelion spores.
- Tom Block