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The Dogs and the Wags

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2000


    'Best in Show' Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara go to the dogs in "Best in Show."
(Wren Maloney/Castlerock)
Hearts are thumping, noses are quivering and fur is flying as eager competitors wait their turns to shine at the prestigious if fictional Mayflower Dog Show. But the prized pooches seem to be taking the hoopla surrounding the canine Olympics in stride.

But then, the dog owners are the real subject in Christopher Guest's "Best in Show," a genial mock documentary modeled on the satirist's 1996 little-theater spoof, "Waiting for Guffman." Although it has blue-ribbon moments, the new comedy just isn't as fresh, focused or uniformly funny as the first. But about halfway through, Fred Willard comes to the rescue with a hilarious parody of a clueless sportscaster covering the dog show.

Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy provided the cast, most of whom also appeared in "Guffman," with a 15-page outline, then let the gifted players riff and, over 60 hours of filming, enrich their characters. But the actors' ad-libbed responses, along with their amateurish reactions to the ever-present camera, are more forlorn than comedic.

Like the amateur thespians in "Guffman," the kennel club members are blissfully ignorant of their peculiarities as they dream, preposterously, of acclaim. Here the dog owners converge on Philadelphia's Mayflower competition (modeled on New York's Westminster dog show), all with their hearts set on taking home the top prize.

Guest, who played the flamboyant stage maven in "Guffman," muzzles his madcap tendencies in the role of Harlan Pepper of Pine Nut, N.C. A courtly fly-fishing expert, Harlan leaves his buddies in charge of his bait shop and heads for Philadelphia with his beloved bloodhound, Hubert. Harlan believes Hubert will use his psychic powers to influence the judges.

Harlan isn't exactly hilarious, but he surrounds himself with funny folks, like his fishing buddies. As he pulls away from Pine Nut, one of them cautions, "If you get tired, pull over." The other adds, "If you get hungry, eat something."

In addition to his writing duties, Levy portrays Gerry Fleck, a mild-mannered menswear salesman who is happily married to Cookie (Catherine O'Hara), even though they are forever running into one or another of Cookie's former flames. Gerry and Cookie, a couple of middlebrow Floridians, are planning to show Winky, their happy little Norwich terrier.

Quite the opposite is true of Beatrice, a neurotic Weimaraner in therapy with her bickering yuppie parents, the Swans. They are the movie's ugly ducklings – striving, stridently battling lawyers who are so relentlessly acted by Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock that they aren't funny. Hey, kids – this isn't "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof?"

Michael McKean, whose relationship with Guest dates back to "This Is Spinal Tap," and John Michael Higgins (HBO's "The Late Shift") are charmingly quirky in what might have been stereotypical gay roles. They are the life of the party until the arrival of the waggish Willard as Buck Laughlin, an oblivious broadcaster modeled on the oblivious Joe Garagiola.

Buck, sporting a red bow tie and the brains of a Brussels sprout, has a wonderfully prim foil in Jim Piddock as a consummate expert aghast at Buck's inappropriate, irrelevant and inane remarks. Among the most priceless: "How do they miniaturize dogs, anyway?"

Willard's work also demonstrates that the movie, a loosely structured series of vignettes, needed a strong protagonist throughout. Moviegoers, like dogs, need somebody to bond with.

"Best in Show" (89 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for language and sex-related material.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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