Best in Show
review by Elias Savada, 22 September 2000

Christopher Guest and his well-groomed entourage of improv artists push pseudo dog show mentality to the upper limits of droll wit in Best in Show. You’ll take home the prize and howl up a hair ball by the time the winner parades before the appreciative crowd, on screen and off. Guest and American Pie’s Eugene Levy are credited as writers, although this hilarious, hand-held send up of the competitive canine crowd is squarely in the hands of the actors, who ham it up with brilliant pretense, rarely missing a comic beat. As with Guest’s previous ensemble mockumentary Waiting for Guffman (which he also created with Levy) and the Rob Reiner-directed This Is Spinal Tap (which Guest co-wrote and co-starred with Michael McKean -- back here as a middle-aged hair salon proprietor), the film segments into a variety of eccentric characters that chain-react as it trots on its merry and well-paced way. It’s a cinematic chemistry experiment gone haywire, and what’s left after the smoke rises is destined to become another cult favorite.  

The actors, many of them Guffman alumni, bump their outrageous identities off each other and the camera with well-timed and well-chosen quips and retorts, often compressed in little snippets of screen time (and usually ending with a deadpan clincher) as they and their pets are initially introduced on their home turf and their dog stories subsequently rotated over the course of a brisk ninety minutes. As canine-show aficionados and their tangentially-affiliated partners, they step about in search of top prize during the last half of the film, at the prim and proper 125th edition of the "Mayflower Dog Show" in Philadelphia. There, in the heat of competition, late night regular Fred Willard bites into the contenders as Buck Laughlin, an off-color television commentator whose red bow tie is as appropriately out of place as his running stream of semi-irreverent jokes. His duty-bound British partner Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddick) puts up a brave and ever serious face as foil to his partner’s school yard innocence. No doubt in his afterlife, Buck would be a poker-playing mutt on velvet.

The creative spark and collaborative energy highlights the distinctive owners and handlers of five of the finalists:

Beatrice, a sad-eyed, neurotic Weimaraner down and out in upper crust Moordale, Illinois, who accompanies her color-coordinated and cataloged-obsessed malparents Meg (Parker Posey) and Hamilton Swan (Michael Hitchcock) to a session with their soft-spoken shrink (which bookends the film). Meg’s concerned their pooch is not emotionally comfortable with the "Conquest of a Cow", one of the couple’s newly-discovered Kama Sutra positions. Their frantic search for a misplaced squeeze toy could spell trouble.

Winky, a cute Norwich Terrier, resides in Fern City, Florida, with her musical owners, the Flecks ("God Loves a Terrier"). Cookie (Catherine O’Hara) is a blonde bombshell whose sexually-explosive past constantly excites her when a number of previously satisfied male "patrons" pop out of the woodwork and recall some provocative one-night-stands from her past. Gerry, her buck-toothed, buttoned-up husband (Levy) is haunted by the bevy of men who pick his wife out of the crowd, or by her occasional dalliance with an "old friend." He’s also got two left feet. Literally. Both (the Flecks, not the feet) are excited to be going to Philadelphia, to see where they make the cream cheese!

Hubert, a fine looking Bloodhound, is owned by small town fly-fishing enthusiast and amateur ventriloquist Harlan Pepper (Guest), whose close-cropped rusty hair and mustache match his pet’s coloring. His thick North Carolina drawl smoothers his words, but you can decipher his affection for mixed nuts (hmmm, seems like he’s talking about the cast too!), just as Bubba spouted off a list of innumerable shrimp dishes in Forrest Gump.

Miss Agnes, a Shih Tzu, is revered by her professional handler Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) and his longtime significant other Stefan Vanderhoof (McKean). A flamboyantly gay couple ("An All-American Love Story") from Tribeca with a fondness for overdressing, they howl when greeted by management with their room size, "I have you down for a queen." And Willard’s character loves to mispronounce their dog’s breed.

Rhapsody in White, a Standard Poodle, previous winner and odds-on favorite, is the property of voluptuous gold-digger Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge) and her silently mummified, but fabulously wealthy, husband Leslie (Patrick Cranshaw), speaking to the camera from their Philadelphia mansion how they share a love for soup and snow peas. To insure their bitch’s continued reign, the ditsy, self-proclaimed "epitome of glamour" Sherri has hired ace handler Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch), sporting an Anne Heche hairdo and a "lovely working relationship" that might be deeper than it seems.

Spicing up the loony casserole are little bits by Bob Balaban (as the Mayflower Kennel Club President), Larry Miller (one of Cookie’s conquests, a dour police negotiator who could care less about his victims-- "They always jump."), and particularly Ed Begley, Jr. He’s the earnestly enlightened Mark Schaeffer, the well prepared manager at Philadelphia’s Taft Hotel. Accustomed to the annual deluge of champion dogs and their human guests kenneled at his "resort," he touts his nuclear arsenal of industrial pet poop deterrents stored in a fallout shelter/utility closet (a space later offered to the Flecks when their credit sours). He’s learned from past experience, including the time a rock group (Spinal Tap?) roasted a goat in their room.

There are last-minute heroics, the heartbreak of defeat, and the smell of victory. At least I think that’s what victory smells like -- just don’t step in it. As a kicker, Guest adds some lovely canned "what are they doing now" postscripts, including a hilarious calendar photo session, that spices up the already heavily-peppered antics. Throw yourself a big fat steak bone and declare yourself a winner. Fetch Best in Show, now!

Click here to read Elias Savada's interview.

Directed by:
Christopher Guest

Jennifer Coolidge
Christopher Guest
John Michael Higgins
Michael Hitchcock
Eugene Levy
Jane Lynch
Michael McKean
Catherine O’Hara
Parker Posey

Written by:
Christopher Guest
Eugene Levy




  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.