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Feels Like the Third Time

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2000


    'Best in Show' Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara and their little pal, Winky, in "Best in Show."
(Wren Maloney/Castlerock)
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."

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 man.

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.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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