Best in Show (2000)

D: Christopher Guest
S: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy

Mildly amusing but overstretched 'mockumentary' style comedy set in the world of dog shows. A group of assorted weirdoes and obsessives converge on Philadelphia for a major event, and the old clichés about the slippage of identity between canines and their human owners are played out. A terrific cast of supporting actors are largely wasted on the tepid gags which co-writers Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap) and Eugene Levy (American Pie) wring out of the scenario (the dialogue is mostly improvised), but they do at least succeed in keeping it afloat. Though there are some smiles, there are few enough laughs, and the whole thing feels like it could have been done more effectively in half an hour on television.

The plot, such as it is, is really just a series of character vignettes, introducing a number of the contestants and their owners before setting them in motion at the climactic show itself. Part of the problem is that they really are just vignettes, not characterisations. There is no real sense of development or even of actual personality. The characters are really just a collection of mannerisms with running gags attached to them. Levy, for example, himself portrays an unassuming lower middle class type with a peculiar physical defect (two left feet). His wife (Catherine O'Hara) has had a chequered past, which results in increasing insecurity for Levy himself as they continue to encounter her ex-lovers at every stop on their trip to the show. It is kind of funny, but it is also a single joke told over and over again. It is to the performers' credit that it doesn't wear so thin it becomes unwatchable.

Another weakness in the script is the relative lack of interaction between these sketchily drawn characters. There is no drama here, no opportunity to explore and develop the personalities as they encounter one another. Instead each set of owners has a separate plot to follow, usually tied up with the fate of their dog (naturally). Again the problem is that each of the plots has basically one joke which provides a premise for improvisation, and good enough as it might be, it is never enough to keep the film moving forward. There no sense of urgency here, no genuine energy. The overall structure apes documentary, but only insofar as this provides a justification for the talking heads. It fails to generate any narrative momentum, as the individual stories are predictable and the characterisations obvious. There is really no sense of the excitement or unpredictability typical of good documentary, so brilliantly captured and utilised in This is Spinal Tap. The hesitant delivery and improvisational dialogue do not have the intended effect of suggesting this. They often push the film more towards stand-up.

Guest must be on one hand eternally grateful for This is Spinal Tap and on the other frustrated by it. Its style also influenced his Waiting for Guffman (also co-written by Levy), and brought him no greater success on that occasion. He seems eager to find a forum for rambling, surreal monologues and bizarre exchanges between characters. The format does provide him with one, but he has not really done enough with it to make it interesting or funny. It is much simpler than Spinal Tap in its choice of 'documentary' techniques. It is mostly pieces to camera, with not enough 'observational' scenes to pad out the action.

The film does have enough comic acting to pass the time relatively painlessly if you tune in to its humour in the first place. Guest himself is funny in a deadpan role as a North Carolina fishing tackle salesman whose bloodhound is his life. The DVD reveals a series of bizarre improv scenes which didn't make it to the final cut, but the character still never really gets past being a not very funny regional caricature. Levy is amusing enough, and relatively likable, but he is not quite outrageous enough to carry to the prosthetic teeth and literal two left feet which give the character physical presence. Guest's Spinal Tap co-star Michael McKean is one half of a cheerful New York gay couple (John Michael Higgins plays the other half ) who are actually the liveliest and most believable characters in the film. Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock are kind of funny as a combative and neurotic pair who seem not to notice that they are the ones who are stressed, not their beloved Weimaraner, but there's something faintly uncomfortable about watching them which brings to mind the queasy mixture of grotesquerie and realism in Kingpin and Me, Myself, and Irene. Fred Willard builds up a good head of steam as an inane commentator whose stream of gibberish contrasts with the sombre reaction of his British counterpart Jim Piddock. Ed Begley Jnr. and Bob Balaban also have small but amusing roles. Jane Lynch is actually very good as a high-class handler who looks after socialite Jennifer Coolidge's prize poodle. There is something authentic about her characterisation which stands out above the play-acting. She seems like a human being rather than a schematic caricature.

Most viewers are likely to be a bit confused by the film, which really has a 'so what?' quality to it. Dog enthusiasts may get a bit more out of it, but it is not nearly as interesting as the actual (and genuinely funny) documentary The Wonderful World of Dogs as a portrait of the peculiar ways in which humans and canines interact. All of the dogs in the film are very good, obviously well used to performance in public and seeming to give very little trouble to the cast. The film on the whole though is not especially funny. It lacks big comic moments for casual viewers to latch onto amid the low-key in-jokes and probably just won't click with most people. On the whole it is probably best avoided.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.

Note: The Region 2 DVD carries a good range of features, including a good commentary by Guest and Levy and a bevvy of deleted scenes (none of which add substantially to its depth). The commentary suggests that there was some sixty hours of raw (mostly improvised) footage to choose from in all (including alternate takes of scenes featured in the final cut). Thank goodness the DVD producer has not opted to include virtually an entire new film in the deleted scenes as they did with This is Spinal Tap.