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'Best in Show'

Smile full of canines: 'Best in Show' another contestant in improvised comedy

Friday, October 13, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Among the humans in "Best in Show," the blue ribbon goes to Fred Willard. He portrays an announcer at a dog show whose hilarious and irreverent one-liners impart a zing of energy to the movie, which lacks rhythm and pace through much of its first half.

'Best In Show'

RATING: PG-13 for language, sex-related material.

STARRING: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara.

DIRECTOR: Christopher Guest.

WEB SITE: www.bestinshow

CRITIC'S CALL: 2 1/2 stars.


That can happen sometimes to movies that are largely improvised. But writer-director-actor Christopher Guest demonstrated his mastery of the form in the 1997 mockumentary "Waiting for Guffman," about a group of amateurs trying to mount a theatrical production in a small Midwestern town.

"Best in Show," which is also a mockumentary, reunites Guest with many of the "Guffman" cast members, including such first-rate improvisational comics as Willard, Eugene Levy (who co-wrote "Best in Show") and Catherine O'Hara.

Among the other returning "Guffman" performers are Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock and Bob Balaban. The ensemble also features Michael McKean, who co-wrote and co-starred with Guest in the greatest of all mockumentaries, Rob Reiner's "This is Spinal Tap."

Both of those films dealt with a group of people working together in a world with which we have at least a passing familiarity. "Guffman" had them collaborating on the creation, rehearsal and performance of a stage show. That process gave Guest the platform from which he could precisely lampoon (and, in a way, celebrate) theater's inherent pretense, inflated egos, false hopes, flop sweat, grandiose expectations, inevitable desperation and small triumphs, however you define them.

"Best in Show" lacks that kind of structure at first, leading to a desultory aimlessness early on.

We meet the characters not as one large group but as several small ones -- couples, mostly, who live in various parts of the country and have little in common except their devotion to their pets.

Levy, playing another of his classic polyester nerds, and O'Hara, as his vivacious wife, own a Norwich terrier about which they write cutesy little songs. Posey and Hitchcock portray yuppies who worry about bruising the psyche of their Weimaraner and annoy each other almost as much as they annoy us.

McKean and John Michael Higgins play a gay couple who own a pair of Shih Tzus. Guest plays a fishing-shop owner with a prize bloodhound. Jennifer Coolidge, as the voluptuous young wife of a wealthy old coot, hires Jane Lynch to be the handler of her two-time champion poodle.

We meet them in faux interviews during which the actors have improvised details of their backgrounds. But the characters, and their relationship with their dogs, seem exaggerated enough that Guest seems to be emphasizing the mockery at the expense of the reality behind the humor.

The movie coalesces when they get to the dog show and begin interacting. The reality sets in on the day of the big event, with its pomp and circumstance, grim-faced judges, precise rituals and backstage primping.

And then Willard takes it all apart again. This grinning dunderhead, paired with a stiff-upper-lip British commentator (Jim Piddock), keeps throwing out outrageous comments and questions that can take the form of sports cliches, novice queries, dirty jokes or just plain inspired goofiness.

We suspect he knows he's being either stupid or subversive, but he never lets on. He just keeps smiling and cracking wise as the contestants solemnly put their canines through the paces in hopes of capturing the top prize. Credit Higgins and McKean, Coolidge and Lynch for finding the most humanity in their characters.

We may know who's going to win by this point, but of course it doesn't matter. We're laughing now. That's what matters. This pooch finally learns to show off its new tricks.

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