Feels Like the Third Time
By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2000
It boils down to this: I enjoyed "Best in Show," Christopher Guest's comic faux-documentary about dog shows and the eccentric animal owners who brush and fuss over them. But I didn't laugh as hard
as I did during Guest's previous comedies, "This Is Spinal Tap" and
"Waiting for Guffman."
Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara and their little pal, Winky, in "Best in Show."
Sure, there are very funny moments and, of course, very silly dog
owners, played by many of the usual guest stars: Eugene Levy, Michael
McKean and Catherine O'Hara among them. Guest himself (who wrote this
with Levy) plays Harlan Pepper, a fly-fishing shop owner and proud
owner of a bloodhound named Hubert.
But the movie is more amiable than hysterical, more gently amusing
than downright chucklesome. One problem is that Guest has essentially
made this mockumentary (using the same comic stock and trade)
before twice. And he's made them better.
You surely recall "This Is Spinal Tap," the inspired parody about an
over-the-hill British rock group (including Guest as the clueless,
tight-trousered guitarist "Nigel"), and "Waiting for Guffman," Guest's
wry look at small-town talent shows, featuring Guest as the
unforgettable theatrical director, Corky St. Clair.
Against blue-ribbon competition like that, "Best in Show" can only
win, well, what would it be the yellow?
Bloodhound owner Harlan is just one of the contestants looking to win
the Mayflower Dog Show. Also in the lineup: a Manhattan hair stylist
Stefan (McKean) and his partner/dog handler Scott (John Michael
Higgins), accompanied by their Shih Tzu, Miss Agnes; menswear salesman
Gerry Fleck (Levy) and his flirtatious wife Cookie (O'Hara), who own a
Norwich Terrier called Winky; and neurotic lawyers Meg (Parker Posey)
and Hamilton Swan (Michael Hitchcock), who fuss and fidget over their
precious Weimaraner, Beatrice.
The buxom Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge) has high hopes for her
Standard Poodle, Rhapsody in White. She's married to the aged, rich
Leslie Ward Cabot (Patrick Cranshaw), and it's clear she's got more
going on with her dog handler, Christy (Jane Lynch), than with the old
Perhaps you can sense the same problem I did. These owners, with the
exception of Harlan (who resembles no one I've ever seen) aren't
inspired comic creations. Although Guest frees the performers to
improvise, he doesn't make it easy. The actors are constantly
struggling to break free of stock characters, from upscale gays with
Shih Tzus to neurotic lawyers with equally high-maintenance
Weimaraners. A good laugh in this movie amounts to a triumph of
performance over script.
The opening scene, featuring the yuppie-lawyer couple, their animal
shrink and their pooch is a case in point.
It's hardly satirically outrageous that a couple would have an animal
psychiatrist. This conceit feels done before. And the fact that the
dog, Beatrice, has been showing signs of depression because she saw
her owners having sex, well, it's a second-tier funny idea.
And yet, occasional great lines come out, as the couple discusses
their history, including their love-at-first-sight meeting at
Starbucks. It wasn't the same Starbucks, mind you. The stores were
across the street from each other.
In the end, that's what you wait for: moments that take you away from
the funny-business-as-usual story.
When Christy the dog handler talks about her family, she describes a
father who was a disciplinarian and a mother who gave nothing but
unconditional love. This situation "worked for my family," says
Christy, "until my Mom committed suicide in '81."
And when one of our Shih Tzu owners sees the business between Sherri
Ann and Christy, he declares: "Rhapsody has two Mommies."
Of course, there's another wonderful element: the dogs themselves.
Guest created an entire dog show tournament from scratch for the sake
of authenticity, and asked the actors to take dog handling classes.
It's a pleasure to watch these great dogs in their splendor and to
understand the sense of excitement that characterizes shows like
these. It's also fun to have Fred Willard, who had such a good role as
the travel agent Ron Albertson in "Waiting for Guffman." Here, as
Buck Laughlin, he's a dog show-ignorant color commentator on the
sidelines, who offers tasteless, man-in-the-street commentary that
evokes the pithy, deadpan comedy he performed for the classic talk
show, "Fernwood 2Night." If anyone's going to take us through this
bizarre, one-of-a-kind world with inappropriate insight, well, only
Leslie Nielsen could outdo him.
"Best in Show" (PG-13, 90 minutes) Contains risque comments.