Best in Show

"This is a fish! I need a bumblebee!"

Here is the polar opposite of the naively good-natured Pay It Forward, a film reveling in its cynicism. There is no doubt that director/star Christopher Guest didn’t have benevolent intentions in making the mockumentary Best in Show — a film almost misanthropic in its unapologetic meanness — but there is no denying the riotously funny result. Anyway, the subjects of this wicked satire probably deserve everything they got.

There have been plenty of comedies ridiculing beauty pageants; some savage, others more tolerant. But we haven’t seen much about an even sillier practice — dog shows. They seem like a harmless enough institution — canines compete for the best within their breed — but the devil is in the details. Dogs simply weren’t created for this sort of thing. They don’t like to be incessantly pestered to look their best. They’re miserable when they’re forbidden to roll around on the grass and chase frisbees and must instead stand on a table and be combed.

The focus of Best in Show is a few dog owners on their way to a competition in Philadelphia. It opens with Meg and Hamilton Swan (Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey) telling a sad story to a psychiatrist. We soon realize that they’re not talking about themselves or their child but rather about their dog who has been depressed ever since she witnessed them doing the horizontal mambo. We also meet Harlan Pepper (director Christopher Guest), a southern Fish & Game store owner whose favorite pasttime is “nut-naming” (you can find out for yourself). Harlan has a bloodhound and the two share many oddly touching, or just plain odd, moments together.

Next on the docket are Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara), a distinctively bizarre couple (Jerry has two left feet; Cookie seems to have slept with every guy in the U. S. of A.) who enjoy singing songs about terriers. Then there are Scott and Stephan (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean), a flamboyant gay couple with a pair of Shit-zus. Finally, Jennifer Coolidge plays Sheri Ann Ward Cabot, an entrepeneur and fashion maven, Tammy Faye Bakker style. In the beginning of the film, she is married to a ridiculously old geezer but by the end she develops a lesbian relationship with her dog trainer (Jane Lynch). Once we reach the actual dog show, Fred Willard provides hilarious play-by-play as the dimwitted commentator (“Would you believe that in some countries, these dogs are eaten?”)

Although Best in Show is fiction, it is filmed in documentary style, i.e. the characters talk to the camera. Realism is key here — though the characters are gross exaggerations, the fact that they are the only aspect of the movie that is farfetched adds a lot of bite to the satire.

Way too often have I seen Best in Show described as a nice, innocuous little comedy. In fact, it is far from it. Whether the effect was intender or not, Guest’s movie is almost unbelievably nasty, treating its characters with a level of contempt uncommon even for a parody. Thankfully, he makes us feel that the derision is justified and the amount of laughs he extracts from the high concept is remarkable. Harlan Pepper’s nut-naming monologue had me nearly in tears as did the running joke of every single guy recognizing Cookie Pepper (“Hey, she looks familiar!”).

Best in Show makes show dog owners look like such utter morons that I’m surprised nobody sued for defamation of collective characters. By the time the end credits roll, I was convinced: I will never in my life attend a dog show.

-- Eugene Novikov

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