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With: Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Guest, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Fred Willard
Written by: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy
Directed by: Christopher Guest
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and sex-related material
Running Time: 90
Date: 09/08/2000

Best in Show (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Funny Bone

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Have you noticed how most comedies today are desperate? They stop just short of getting on their hands and knees and begging you to laugh and pleading with you to love them. I'm sure that if they could add a sitcom laugh track to tell us when to laugh, they would. And then there are movies like Christopher Guest's Best in Show, where the characters are barely aware that anything funny is going on.

Guest, who directs, co-writes, and stars in Best in Show is one of the fine minds behind This Is Spinal Tap (1984), the King of all fake documentaries. In 1997, Guest followed that up with Waiting for Guffman (1997), another fake documentary about a theater troupe in a small town that struck me as too self-consciously goofy. Now he brings us a third fake documentary that takes us behind the scenes of a national dog show and introduces us to the people who compete in such shows. It may not approach the King, but at least it's close enough to rank as Court Jester.

You may think that dog shows are an easy target for a spoof, and not quite as deserved as an aging heavy metal band that brings ridicule upon itself. But I've been to dog shows, and these people are truly weird. Guest leads the cast as Harlan Pepper, the redneck owner of a huge, lovable, loose-skinned hound dog. Other cast members include Eugene Levy (who co-wrote the script with Guest) as a nerd with funny teeth and (literally) two left feet, and his wife (Catherine O'Hara) who has presumably slept with hundreds of men. Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock play a pair of tightly-wound yuppies who met at Starbucks ("not the same Starbucks--they were across the street from each other"). And a gay couple, Michael McKean (also in This Is Spinal Tap) and John Michael Higgins, are the most solid people in the movie. And finally, we have the Anna Nicole Smith-like Jennifer Coolidge, who is married to the frail, rich, old Patrick Cranshaw, and secretly in love with her female trainer, the Anne Heche-like Jane Lynch.

While these people are all funny, they pretty much run out of steam by the halfway mark. What saves the movie is the perfectly-delivered one-liners of Fred Willard as the clueless dog show emcee. He's paired with a snooty Englishman (Jim Piddock) who is a dog expert, but Willard is more interested in sports and chicks. So he just tries to fill the dead air with dumb comments like, "wouldn't the crowd love it if they dressed that dog like Sherlock Holmes with a little pipe and hat?" and "it's such a shame that, in some countries, these dogs are eaten." Willard's delivery is so earnest and so pitch-perfect that he had me howling with laughter for the entire last half of the movie. (Willard was also in This Is Spinal Tap as the Air Force captain who was really into the music stylings of Four Jacks and a Jill.)

While Willard is the standout, I was endlessly impressed by the overall quality of performance here. If you put Guest's characters Nigel Tufnel (Spinal Tap), Corky St. Clair (Waiting for Guffman), and Harlan Pepper in the same room, you might think they were distant cousins, but hardly the same person. O'Hara (Beetlejuice & Home Fries) is always a shrilly brilliant sex-bomb comedian. Posey (Henry Fool & You've Got Mail), with her hair matted down and teeth in braces, radiates hypertension. And Higgins (who portrayed David Letterman in the infamous TV movie, The Late Show) is a hilarious ultra-femme homosexual whose lines all seem completely improvised.

And, of course, Best in Show has lots of dogs. I'm a dog lover myself and I appreciated that not all of them were froo-froo dog-show dogs. Some of them were lovable household dogs as well.

The trick in these kinds of movies is to make us get us involved in the characters and story the way a real documentary would, but without resorting to "dramatic" tactics the way a fiction film would. Best in Show succeeds. It gets back on the track of what made This Is Spinal Tap so funny, and it comes in a close second.

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