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Best in Show

1984's This Is Spinal Tap, with Rob Reiner at its helm, became a certified hit. In 1996, Spinal Tap's co-writer, Christopher "Nigel Tufnel" Guest, returned to the "mockumentary" format by co-writing and directing Waiting for Guffman, another hilarious, well-drawn faux-doc that focused not on a near-religion like metal rock, but on the smaller, more insular world of small-town community theater. In Guffman, Guest joined his ensemble of skilled comic actors (Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Michael McKean, and more) in a small film that earned enough big guffaws to perform well critically and commercially even if it didn't become the quasi-cult phenomenon that Spinal Tap grew into.

In 2000, Guest and company scored another win with Best in Show. With the same deadpan, improvised pseudo-vérité lampooning Spinal Tap gave the world of heavy metal, plus the carefully turned comic observation that made Guffman's skewering of Broadway-hopeful locals so effective, Best in Show proved that the insanely competitive world of big-league dog shows, like Alpo, makes its own gravy.

Of the three movies, Best in Show arguably possesses the slimmest plot (if that word applies to any of them at all). Like its predecessors, much of the humor springs from the sheer driving earnestness of its clueless characters. We follow four couples and their put-upon pets all the way to the big win at the prestigious Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. A pair of anxiety-addled, catalog-living yuppies (Michael Hitchcock and awesome Parker Posey) redefine "high-strung." (Here in Seattle, Posey's line, "We met at Starbucks — not at the same Starbucks, but we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street from each other," always gets a knowing, albeit rather jittery, laugh.)

Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins are affable gay New Yorkers with too many kimonos and a super-groomed Shih Tzu. A suburban couple (Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy) have to contend with his two left feet (literally two left feet) and reunions with men from her — to put it in PG terms — fondly remembered past. As a tacky trophy wife and her increasingly friendly dog handler, Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Lynch discover the hairstyle that dare not speak its name. Also here is Guest himself playing a genial Deep South good ol' boy practicing the "ancient art" of ventriloquism when not mouth-kissing his bloodhound.

At the dog show's main event, Fred Willard upstages everyone as a magnificently inappropriate announcer.

These are all caricatures more than characters, cartoonish and exaggerated, but the odds are good that we recognize every one of them from people we've known. Or from — and here's the unspoken catharsis that Guest has tapped into in these films — ourselves, from that little frisson of familiarity at our own anonymous moments of clueless earnestness.

What makes Best in Show sparkle like a diamond-stud collar is the comedy that this cast shapes from a two-page story outline (credited to Guest and Levy), improvising their scenes on camera without rehearsal and without forcing the humor. Although the result is a storyline that plateaus too soon before coasting to the end, it's always a pleasure to watch this ensemble of gifted talents do what they do best — be spontaneous and funny and surprising. What we get is a master-class demonstration of the distinction between comic actors and comedians who try to act.

*          *          *

Warner's DVD edition of Best in Show delivers a fine print and transfer (1.85:1, anamorphic) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1.

The straight-talking commentary track with Guest and Levy isn't nearly as funny as you'd expect a dialogue with this pair to be, but they're chatty and informative. This disc's big collection of deleted scenes (with optional commentary by Guest and Levy), some as good as the final-cut material, could be assembled into a sequel all by themselves. We also get cast profiles. Snap-case.

—Mark Bourne

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