Best in Show

best-in-show-fred-willard-as-announcerCan a comedy be biting and generous-hearted at the same time? Any comedy walks a fine line between making its characters laughable and making them laughing stocks; it’s the fine line, as someone once said, between clever and stupid. Christopher Guest, in his films The Big Picture, Waiting for Guffman, and now Best in Show, walks this line so skillfully that you never worry whether your laughter is powered by condescension (as it so often is with comedies you hate yourself in the morning for laughing at).

Guest had an unfortunate career blip a couple years back with the excruciating Chris Farley swan song Almost Heroes, which he directed but did not write (it showed). Best in Show finds him back in his very specialized element: Some people were put here to write poems, some were meant to compose symphonies — Guest was born to make mockumentaries. Though he didn’t invent the subgenre, he has perfected it, starting with his contribution to the hallowed classic This Is Spinal Tap. (Guest showed with The Big Picture that he can score with “straight” narrative comedy, too.) Guest seems happiest when poking a flashlight into obscure, hapless offshoots of entertainment — Waiting for Guffman‘s regional-theater troupe, Spinal Tap‘s on-their-uppers heavy-metal band — and Best in Show finds him examining dog-show contestants, mainly the humans whose dogs are competing.

Best in Show has a similar arc to 1999’s flawed beauty-pageant mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, only without that film’s self-consciously “dark” murder plot. Guest wastes no time overplotting; he simply introduces the characters and their shared goal, then watches what happens. To my great relief, there are no sitcom-level conflicts, no backstage quarrels or sabotage between the dog owners (who hardly interact with each other). Guest stays with the specific, disparate people who have all come here to take home the “Best in Show” trophy.

It’s Guest’s particular genius to come up with a premise, work up a basic blueprint of a script (he developed this one with Eugene Levy), and then cast actors who can improvise and bring their characters above stereotype. Certainly the film has more potential stereotypes than you could shake a squeak toy at. There’s the bland Florida couple (Levy and Catherine O’Hara) — he with two left feet (literally), she with an impressive sexual past. There’s the opposites-attract gay couple, a reserved hairdresser (Michael McKean) and an unapologetic flamer (John Michael Higgins). There’s an uptight yuppie couple (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) who bonded over their mutual passion for catalogs. There’s a trophy wife (Jennifer Coolidge) who seems built out of collagen, and her butch dog handler (Jane Lynch). There’s a drawling good-ol’-boy (Guest himself) who dotes on his dachshund.

Yet, uniformly, the cast refuses to let us look down on these people. Like Waiting for Guffman, the movie gets its laughs by letting its people talk and reveal themselves unconsciously. They’re silly — this is a comedy — but never beyond recognition. Eugene Levy, for instance, endows his geeky character with affectionate self-awareness (just as he did playing the too-helpful dad in American Pie). You expect his left-footedness to pay off, perhaps when he’s walking his dog during the climactic show, but despite planting the detail that Levy used to walk in circles due to his left feet, Guest doesn’t go for a cheap laugh. Most other comedies would.

Most other comedies also wouldn’t find time for Fred Willard, as the show’s on-air commentator, who starts off poorly and gets hilariously worse, spiraling off into increasingly irrelevant musings (“How much do you think I can bench-press?” he asks his baffled British co-chair). While the contestants sit or pace in nervous silence, Fred Willard takes over the movie, treating us to one riotous stream-of-consciousness soliloquy after another (his comparison of a defeated dog to a certain baseball icon is worth the ticket price by itself). Best in Show isn’t really about the dogs; it’s about the goal-oriented humans flitting around the center of this mundane event. Christopher Guest sees the deep comedy in people obsessed with things most of us would find ridiculous, but he doesn’t have the heart to ridicule them for it.

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