Putting on the dog

Guest parodies dog shows in Best In Show

The Miss America Pageant for canine culture, the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, can seem preposterously stuffy and overwrought, but one thing never fails to deflate them: the dogs themselves. No matter how absurdly overgroomed, the four-footed contestants mostly seem delighted by the attention, puncturing the pretenses of their owners, handlers and judges.
The curiosity factor is part of a dog show's appeal, with entrants in the diminutive Toy Group frequently being coifed until they look like mascots at the Star Wars cantina. Despite the incongruous mixture of snobbery and puppy love, Westminster's annual broadcast can draw you in until you're cheering your favorite breed.
Such shows are ripe subjects for film comedy and get a tested interpreter in Christopher Guest, who could be called our mockumentarian laureate. He was the lead guitarist and co-writer for This Is Spinal Tap and stepped forth as the frontman for the cult comedy Waiting for Guffman, directing, writing and starring in the central role of provincial theater artiste Corky St. Clair.
Your fondness for Guffman will be a good pointer for how much you'll like Best In Show, which re-enlists nearly the same cast and takes an identical creative approach. With co-star Eugene Levy, Guest wrote a 15-page outline but no dialogue, letting the cast improvise their lines, filming everything and editing 60 hours of footage to an hour and a half. As with Guffman, Best In Show's players have a winning liveliness, despite a habit of fetching the most obvious targets.
Pampering pet owners and animal psychiatrists have long been parodied, and the roles here, all entering their prize pooches in the "125th Annual Mayflower Dog Show," are a predictable grab-bag of fatuous city dwellers and middle-American dopes. They come from hamlets with names like Fern City and Pine Nut, offering a compendium of predictably tacky Americana: high hair, purple lipstick, Winnebagos, braces, etc.
Among the owners are John Michael Higgins and Spinal Tap's Michael McKean as hairdressers whose effeminacy goes up to 11; a drawling fly-fisherman (Guest) who practices ventriloquism for his bloodhound; a nouveau riche golddigger (Sheri Ann Ward Cabot) and her alpha female dog trainer (scene-stealing Jane Lynch); and catalog-obsessed, trend-chasing married couple (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), who project their neuroses on their Weimaraner.
The film has a tendency to seize a running joke in its teeth and worry it to death, like Higgins' campy wardrobe and double entendres. (Is a gay breeder an oxymoron?) Terrier-owner Gerry Fleck (Levy) is perpetually befuddled that his wife Cookie (Catherine O'Hara) is forever encountering shameless strangers prone to make remarks like, "I banged a lot of waitresses in my day, but you were the best!" Gerry literally has two left feet, a detail that seems contrived until it gets a terrific payoff.
Guest's implication throughout is that, with one notable exception, the dogs are the sane ones, and their masters are either compulsive, deluded or barking mad. Perhaps the highlight has the yuppie couple losing their dog's plush "Busy Bee," sending Posey on a brittle rampage for a replacement toy. And though some dogs, especially a French poodle and a Shih-Tzu, have ridiculous hairdos, the film shows plenty of affection for the shaggy co-stars. There's some requisite leg-humping and dog-doo gags, but no animals bear the brunt of any slapstick along the lines of There's Something About Mary.
More surprisingly, Guest shows complete respect for his fictional version of the Westminster exhibition. The Mayflower show, in which the individual "Best in Breed" winners ultimately compete for "Best in Show," is a letter-perfect recreation of the real thing, with the procedures, the artificial turf, the gravity of the judges and even the logo proving utterly authentic.
In the last act most of the comedy comes from the running commentary of a dunderheaded announcer (Fred Willard), and the movie's lack of prepared script seems regrettably apparent. With a British dog expert (Jim Piddock) as the straight man, Willard's play-by-play is meant to be inanely ignorant, but most of his remarks aren't "funny-bad," only irritating. A couple prompt laughs, notably "It's terrible to think that in some countries, these dogs are eaten." The film ends with an epilogue with zaniness sent even further over the top, like Guffman outtakes.
But Guest's improvised approach yields some strangely memorable throwaways, as when the Flecks set off for the show and a neighbor calls "Be sure to stop for a ham sandwich at Lee's Comeuppance." The approach gives the cast a lively naturalism, especially Posey, Guest and Lynch, and you always enjoy the dogs. But in relying on the kind of foils that "SCTV" and "Fernwood 2-Night" chewed up long ago, Best in Show makes you hope that if Guest and company make another comedy, they'll learn a few new tricks.