WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Five dog owners and their supporters, from diverse backgrounds, travel to Philadelphia for the prestigious Mayflower dog show, each with their eyes on the main prize. But there can only be one winner, and four out of the five will leave empty-handed and very upset.
When Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy assembled their cast for Waiting for Guffman the story would have been familiar territory, as the actors must have worked in some pretty low-budget local productions in their time. For Best in Show, however, writers Guest and Levy delve into the esoteric world of pure-breed dog shows, a much tougher ask (you would think) for the performers to riff around.
We are introduced to the owners with little snippets into their private lives, followed by interviews, giving us a clear idea about who they are. Hamilton and Meg Swan (Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey) are neurotic, competitive lawyers with matching braces, a shared interest in coffee and a depressed Weimeraner called Beatrice; Gerry Fleck (Levy) has two left feet and wife Cookie (Catherine O’Hara) an easy reputation going back a long way – they also have a cute Norwich Terrier called Winky; Harlan Pepper (Guest) is drawling bait shop worker with a Bloodhound called Hubert and a secret passion for ventriloquism; Scott and Stefan (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean) are a gay New York couple who love to spoil each other and their Shihtzus, especially contender Agnes (though they phone home to make sure the other one’s okay); and Sherri-Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge) is the dim wife of a very old and very wealthy man, who can therefore afford to employ personal handler Christy (Jane Lynch) to look after Poodle Butch, aka Rhapsody in White, two-time (and reigning) Best in Show at the Mayflower.
While the Flecks make their way to Philly, popping in on lecherous old flame Max (Larry Miller) on the way before humiliatingly finding they can only afford a closet at the hotel, the Cabots have no such problem and throw a swanky party, confidently inviting the chief judge (Bob Balaban) along to prematurely celebrate what they assume will be another victory.
Show dogs may seem like an unlikely choice for comedy, and anyone seeking the brilliant punch-lines to jokes that This is Spinal Tap set up (alongside much more) is likely to be disappointed. Yet, in its way, Best in Show is almost the equal of Tap: firstly, it matches the choice of dogs to the characters perfectly, the relationship between animal and actors coming across as completely convincing; secondly, each of the characters is chock-full of personality, from the highly-strung Swans to the ultra-waspish Scott, from the insanely-focused Christy to the phlegmatic Harlan. The actors – even those with fleeting roles like Larry Miller’s insatiable Max – inhabit their parts to such a degree that all Guest has to do is pick the best bits, the understanding in the group so strong that the ‘bigger’ stars like O’Hara, McKean, and even Guest himself can sit back and take quieter roles whilst the likes of Lynch, Higgins and Posey storm their way through scenes.
Parker Posey is especially good in an angrier than usual role, berating Ed Begley Jr’s “stupid” hotel manager when Beatrice’s toy is lost (he informs her there’s a pet shop in the hotel. ‘What are you,’ she says. ‘A wizard?’). Having recently watched British improvisational comedy Confetti, Best in Show provides an object lesson in giving your character a full, round life to start with and letting the comedy flow from that.
Thirdly, just when you fear Best in Show will become dry, at the start of the competition proper, Fred Willard pops up as commentator Buck Laughlin alongside knowledgeable colleague Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock). Although Buck knows nothing about dogs, he is an unstoppable dynamo of commentary, throwing in an array of redundant sports comparisons, or complete non sequiturs when nothing else comes to mind. Trevor is very much the straight man of the duo and has to come back to the dogs to name breeds and explain procedure, but the pair are very funny and make the show itself great fun (accompanying the physical comedy of Cookie injuring herself, causing her to walk in a most ungainly fashion). Importantly, though, the film never makes fun of the institution of dog shows or their owners, always showing the dogs themselves to good advantage.
One thing Guest has never quite attained is the illusion of realism that had many people believing Spinal Tap were a genuine touring band, partly due to a weakness for the absurd (heavy metal was already ridiculous, which helped); in this case, Harlan’s ventriloquism is out of place (thankfully, Guest cut a scene where Harlan displays his prized beach ball collection), and Gerry’s two left feet is about as funny a joke in execution as it is in theory – not very.
Also, Best in Show occasionally drops the pretence of being a documentary, which unsettles the viewer slightly (why would the cameras be with Scott and Stefan just before they go to bed?). Still, these over the top moments are few and far between, and – Harlan apart – the tricky ‘what happened next’ ending is pretty satisfying, the film ending where it began with Sherri-Ann ditching her husband for an alternative lifestyle and the Swans ditching miserable old Beatrice for a spunky young Bulldog named Kipper. As I have said, if you go into Best in Show expecting a riot, you will probably feel short-changed; but if you pay attention, and listen closely, there is every bit as much to enjoy here as in Guest’s other classic works.