Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Dogs of Comedy: Revisiting Christopher Guest's Best in Show (2000)

When you're as sick as I was this past weekend, you find yourself craving comfort food of all sorts. For comfort comes not only from good hot soup, steamy liquids and plenty of sleep, but it also arrives in choices of films to watch. Rather than turn to the dramatically complex (though I did watch the extraordinary new Blu-ray restoration of the four hour and ten minute director's cut of Sergio Leone's gangster epic, Once Upon a Time in America, which I'll write about next week when I'm fully healthy), I look instead to comedy, the genre that helps us come to terms with pain and misery because we come to laugh at its absurdity. Christopher Guest's mock documentary Best in Show (2000) got the call this past weekend.

It's often been acknowledged – especially in ads – that dog owners not only have a lot in common with their pooches, they sometimes live their lives through them. You can usually size up a dog owner, too, just by watching the type of canine they have at the end of the leash. Dogs can either act out the most regal aspects of the owner's personality, or, as in the case of pit bulls, the owner's latent aggressions. In Best in Show, Christopher Guest satirizes this symbiotic and idiosyncratic alliance by casting it in the colourful arena of a dog show. Using the same spry ensemble of comic actors (Michael McKean, Parker Posey, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy and Fred Willard) that he first worked with in his 1996 debut Waiting for Guffman, in Best in Show, they prove to be even more eccentric than their pets.

Best in Show follows a wide assortment of dog owners who make their way from all over the United States to attend the distinguished Mayflower Dog Show. Among the competitors are an obnoxious yuppie couple, Meg (Parker Posey) and Hamilton Swan (Michael Hitchcock), who feel the success of their marriage can only be measured by the care they show for their pampered Weimaraner. Gerry Fleck (Eugene Levy), an innocuous suburban salesman, and his extremely vibrant wife, Cookie (Catherine O'Hara) bring their agitated Norwich Terrier, who seems to embody all the unacknowledged sexual tensions that exists between the owners. A gay couple, Scott (John Michael Higgins) and Stefan (Michael McKean), bring the royal treatment to their Shih Tzu by adorning her as a queen. The blond bombshell, Sherri Ann (Jennifer Coolidge) and her two-time champion Standard Poodle, "Rhapsody in White," are trying to win their third trophy. And Guest casts himself as Harlan Pepper, a Southern gentleman with a hang-dog expression, who's paired with an equally sombre bloodhound.

Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara

Guest, who also wrote (and starred in) Rob Reiner's modestly ambitious cult favourite, This is Spinal Tap (1984), has a gift for flaky humour and that's what's in full abundance here. Guest isn't out to make fun of the oddities of ordinary people as much he wants to get those peculiarities to bloom. This is probably why he takes such pleasure working with many of the former Second City comedians. Their particular genius is in creating likeable cartoon characters that are firmly rooted in the real world. Eugene Levy, in particular, knows how to put the eyebrows on deadpan comedy. What Levy's Gerry Fleck knows about sales doesn't even come close to what he doesn't know about sex. Every time O'Hara's Cookie meets some stud who once dated her, Levy shrinks Gerry to the size of their terrier. As Cookie, O'Hara is wonderfully adept at being outlandish without coming across as shrill (the same comic combustibility she brought to Tim Burton's Beetlejuice).

Fred Willard and Jim Piddock hosting the dog pageant

Best in Show, though, does have a few dead spots. The gay couple's flamboyant behaviour is only mildly amusing because Guest only parodies what's obvious in their eccentricities. (Guest works best when he parodies what his characters don't perceive about themselves.) Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock, who start out horrifyingly funny, later become simply horrifying because Guest can't vary their high-pitched annoyance. And although I loved the way Guest's Harlan Pepper matched up with his bloodhound, their scenes together don't grow much funnier than the conception. But Best in Show reaches its comic peak with Fred Willard as the TV co-host who makes completely unseemly remarks while covering the pageant. Playing with a straight face, Willard has the kind of impeccable comic timing that explodes every joke, leaving you simultaneously laughing and wincing at his blind inappropriateness. (A few years back, I saw Willard on one of those Celebrity Poker television programs doing the same routine while winning every hand and drawing the look of daggers from the other card players. I couldn't tell whether it was distilled Willard comedy, or if he was dangerously risking getting himself killed before the program's conclusion. The tension of that dynamic kept me watching to the end.)

Best in Show is certainly a much livelier comedy than Waiting for Guffman, and Christopher Guest got even more assured directing his next film, A Mighty Wind, which parodied the Sixties folk revival. Yet Best in Show might still be too quaint for its subject. If not for Willard's ingenious scene-stealing and Levy's forlorn double-takes, the picture would be merely a gently pleasant diversion. Which is to say, Best in Show may not have a lot of bite in its satire, but it has a pretty amusing bark.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.   

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