"Best in Show" has both bark and bite. This latest comic mockumentary to be masterminded by director Christopher Guest has a low-key but sharp and amusing sense of humor that is a nice fit with the frenetic world of competitive dog shows.
"Best in Show" lists Guest and co-star Eugene Levy as co-writers, but this film, like Guest's previous "Waiting for Guffman" and the even-earlier "This Is Spinal Tap" (directed by Rob Reiner), are in reality tributes to the art of improvisation. Working within a general outline, cast members play out elaborate riffs that live and die by the amount of inspired by-play the actors can come up with.
Though "Best in Show" is a little more hit-or-miss than its predecessors, it benefits from the energy generated by an actual dog show competition and has enough raucous moments to carry you over the rough spots. And when Fred Willard as TV dog-show commentator Buck Laughlin gets into the act midway through the picture, "Best in Show" really catches fire.
The dog show world is a more obvious target, as well as one with broader popular appeal, than the amateur theatricals of "Guffman" or even the heavy-metal universe of "Tap," but the philosophy behind these films remains the same.
Once again, Guest and company focus on accentuating the eccentricities of their characters, in this case the owners of five dogs all intent on taking their animals all the way to the top. That would be winning best of show in Philadelphia's prestigious Mayflower Dog Show (modeled on the Westminster show in New York), the Mt. Olympus of canine events.
The happy and not-so-happy owners and their charges cut a wide swath through the human condition. They include:
- Gerry and Cookie Fleck (SCTV alumni Levy and Catherine O'Hara) of Fern City, Fla., who so love their Norwich terrier, Winkie, they've written the song "God Loves a Terrier" in his honor. Gerry has two left feet, literally, while Cookie has so many panting ex-beaus that, in a comical running joke, she can't go anywhere without colliding with one of them.
- Midwesterners Meg and Hamilton Swain (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), whose dysfunctional marriage isn't helped by their dysfunctional Weimaraner Bernice. Though the Swains' brand-name lifestyle is a dead-on satire on consumerism, the couple's incessant bickering is one of the film's least successful stratagems.
- Wealthy socialite Sherri Ann Cabot ("American Pie's" Jennifer Coolidge) and her much-older husband, Leslie Ward Cabot (Patrick Cranshaw). We share a lot of interests, coos Sherri, "we love soup and the outdoors." Looking after their dog, two-time best-in-show standard poodle Rhapsody in White, is fanatical handler Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch), who doesn't quite share Sherri Ann's passion for makeup as an art form.
- Hair salon owner Stefan Vanderhoof and his flamboyant partner Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) are equally committed to their Manhattan lifestyle and their Shih Tzu, Miss Agnes. Vanderhoof is played by longtime Guest collaborator Michael McKean, a long way from his David St. Hubbins character in "Spinal Tap."
Even further away from his role as "Tap's" hard-driving Nigel Tufnel is Guest himself, deeply unrecognizable as slow-talking Harlan Pepper of Pine Nut, N.C., owner of both The Fishin' Hole and a noble bloodhound named Hubert. It's an inspired, juicy part, aided by lines like one thrown at him by a pal as he heads off to Philadelphia: "If you get hungry, eat something."
Best in this particular show is not any of the owners but the irrepressibly buffoonish play-by-play man, the red-bow-tied Laughlin. Created by Willard, a veteran of both "Tap" and "Waiting for Guffman," Buck has a breezy bravado that consistently poleaxes his partner, the quite proper Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddick). "How do they miniaturize dogs, anyway?" is one of Buck's many irresistibly inane ripostes. When this man is on his game, "Best in Show" is being all it can be.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun