Best in Show Finds Laughs in Obsession
In his foreword to the collection Write If You Get Work: The Best of Bob and Ray, Kurt Vonnegut beautifully summed up the appeal of America's last great radio comedians, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, saying of their style of gag: "They aren't like most other comedians' jokes these days, aren't rooted in show business and the world of celebrities and the news of the day. They feature Americans who are almost fourth-rate or below, engaged in enterprises which, if not contemptible, are at least insane. . . . There is a refreshing and beautiful innocence in Bob and Ray's humor."
And, as he proved in his previous film, 1996's Waiting for Guffman--and continues to prove with Best in Show--writer/actor/director Christopher Guest works firmly in the same tradition, showing us a gallery of American obsessives who never quite realize that their obsessions are sidesplittingly absurd. In Guffman, Guest examined the dreamers who populate community theaters from Baltimore to Bakersfield. In Best in Show, he trains his gaze on dog owners, in this case those who hope their pooches will be declared top, er, dog at the fictitious, yet all too real, Mayflower Kennel Club Show in Philadelphia.
As in Guffman, Guest collaborated on his "script" with Eugene Levy, alum of the immortal skit series SCTV and a man whose humor is in sync with Guest's high-wire approach. "Script" goes in quotes because what Guest and Levy do is create a roster of characters, sketch a firm story line, and then recruit performers capable of improvising effortlessly within the framework of a faux documentary. Because nothing is so bad as bad improv, this is risky filmmaking, so Guest and Levy pick proven collaborators. Joining the writers in the Show cast are many of whom who also co-starred in Guffman: Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, and Parker Posey. Also on hand are Michael McKean (who co-starred with Guest on Saturday Night Live and in the classic This is Spinal Tap) and several lesser-known names who mesh beautifully, all the way down to the little-known Hiro Kanagawa, who plays a pet-shop proprietor who must endure Posey's rampaging yuppie from hell as she searches for a squeaky bee toy to placate her ill-mannered Weimaraner.
The virtue of Guest's approach is that it can create marvelous individual scenes of comedy. The vice of his technique is that, when scenes don't click or go on too long, Show falls out of rhythm. During the climactic dog competition, for example, Guest too often resorts to scenes between Willard (Fernwood 2-Night, WKRP in Cincinnati) and Jim Piddock, who play the show's commentators. At first (and maybe second and third), Willard's classless, clueless comments about the proceedings, such as his riff on pronouncing "Shih Tzu," are funny, but Guest relies on Willard far too much--probably because the only other possible action is watching pooches prance around a ring.
What works most successfully are the scenes that set up the dynamics among couples who are competing together. Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) and Stefan Vanderhoof (McKean) are a gay couple united by their love of dogs--Donlan's a young, professional, ultra-flamboyant dog handler, and Vanderhoof's a beauty-salon owner who paternally indulges his partner's outrageousness. Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Levy and O'Hara) are a barely middle-class Florida couple so devoted to their Norwich terrier, Winky, that they write songs about her. (Cookie is also a woman with a past--or about 5,000 pasts. Everywhere the Flecks go, they run into ex-boyfriends given to graphic reminiscences.) Meg and Hamilton Swan (Posey and Michael Hitchcock) are wealthy lawyers whose seeming devotion to their dog is only exceeded by their love of earth tones, Macintosh laptops, Starbucks, and the J. Crew catalog--they prefer shopping by phone because, "You don't have to deal with people. Except for the operators." (Extra style points go to whoever thought of giving the Swans braces for their teeth.) And Sherri Ann Ward Cabot and Christy Cummings (Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Lynch) are the voluptuous owner and mildly butch handler, respectively, of reigning champion Rhapsody in White.
But perhaps the most intriguing character is Guest's Harlan Pepper, a fishing-shop owner from North Carolina who has journeyed to Philadelphia with his bloodhound Hubert. With brush-cut hair and a thin moustache, Guest makes Harlan a quiet figure of considerable dignity, rather than the stereotypical good ol' boy. In the dog-show world, where panic and adrenaline rule, Harlan's calm is almost Zen-like, although his passion for ventriloquism would likely baffle even the Buddha.
Before the winner of the coveted "Best in Show" title is declared, there is even a 42nd Street-style moment when an understudy (human, that is) has to go on as a handler and become a star. That's in keeping with the best show-business tradition, and, as Christopher Guest and his merry band demonstrate, the dog show is definitely a form of show biz, one in which the only sensible participants have cold noses.