Director Rob Reiner may have set the standard for the “mockumentary” with “This is Spinal Tap”, but one of the stars of that movie, Christopher Guest, had refined it with his own “Waiting for Guffman.” Guest is one of Hollywood’s funniest comedians, but since he sticks to being funny instead of getting in trouble with drugs/hookers/transvestites/ whatever, he never seems to get the recognition he deserves. Maybe this will change with his new opus, “Best in Show.”
This time out we learn about the “special” relationships people can have with their dogs as we follow a broad range of deluded people on their way to their personal Superbowl, the Mayflower Dog Show.
From Pine Nut, North Carolina we meet Harlan Pepper (Christopher Guest) and his Bloodhound, Hubert. Harlan knows a lot about fly-fishing and nuts, but perhaps not as much about ventriloquism as he’d like.
Yuppie lawyers Meg (Parker Posey) and Hamilton Swan (Michæl Hitchcock) are drowning in their clothing catalogues and sizable neuroses in Illinois, and have transferred their insanity to their Weimaraner, Beatrice.
Fern City, Florida men’s wear salesman Gerry Fleck (Eugene Levy) could focus on Norwich Terrier Winkey if he could only stop running into men that slept with his wife Cookie (Catherine O’Hara). Apparently she married him because he was last in line.
Probably most entertaining is New York dog handler Scott Donlan (John Michæl Higgins) and his longtime partner, salon proprietor Stefan Vanderhoof (Michæl McKean). Of their matching Shih Tzus, they believe Miss Agnes stands the best chance of winning.
When the big show arrives, all must face the previous two-time winner, Poodle Rhapsody In White owned by decrepit millionaire Leslie Ward Cabot (Patrick Cranshaw) and his young trophy wife Sherri Ann (Jennifer Coolidge). To ensure success, Sherri Ann has hired professional dog handler Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch), but the two women are distracted by their, uh, mutual chemistry.
Although similar in style, there are several differences between “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman”. While both movies credit Guest and Levy as writers, you can sense more in the way of structure in their newest work. This is probably due, in part, to another big change. “This is Spinal Tap” and “Waiting for Guffman” both followed a cast of characters, but those groups were, more or less, in pursuit of a single, unified goal. In “Best of Show”, the different characters starting from different locations and only come together to compete against each other for the same prize. As such, we don’t get as much interaction between the different characters as we’d like. The final product also feels much denser as a result of cutting back and forth between all of their different storylines.
Still, it all comes down to how good the cast is, and everyone delivers. Guest himself takes more of a backseat as his southern eccentric is usually by himself. Posey excels, as expected, in a part that allows her to be completely unhinged. Most of the cast do fine jobs, particularly Levy and O’Hara. There are, however, three standouts. First, Fred Willard is the funniest I’ve even seen him as a dog show announcer who doesn’t know anything about dogs, or apparently what jokes might be inappropriate for the venue. Lynch, who had previously wallowed in television and bit movie parts, makes the most of this opportunity and matches the lunacy of anyone else present.
Of everyone, there is one man who truly reaches a new plateau, and that man is John Michæl Higgins. You know he’s got to be good when Michæl McKean plays the “quiet one” in the relationship. Forget Jack from “Will and Grace”, Higgins’ Scott Donlan is the true queen of the ball. His flaming, naughty antics and wardrobe dominate the screen every time he’s on. Frighteningly, the one thing I remember him from is his portrayal of David Letterman in HBO’s adaptation of Bill Carter’s “The Late Shift”. Yikes!
Now, is this movie actually better than “Waiting for Guffman”? Mmmm, no. As that group of characters built toward something together, it had more punch in the end, rather than watching the new bunch take turns presenting their animals in the newer film. It’s still a great movie. The point to these exercises, as both Reiner and Guest know, is not to just spend 90 minutes mocking the adventures of some exaggerated characters. The directors love all the inmates of their asylums, so the audience does too. Too often, when others try this kind of thing, their subjects are little more than a pile of absurd character tics. A full-length feature must be more developed than a half-assed “Saturday Night Live” skit. The filmmakers don’t just need to make us laugh, the must, as Guest has done, make us care.