Hilarious 'Best in Show' deserves a blue ribbon

Friday, October 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Michael Janusonis / The Providence (R.I.) Journal

In Best in Show, Christopher Guest has crafted a hilarious send-up of the dog-eat-dog world of dog shows and the obsessed owners who put pampered pooches on display in hopes of walking away with a blue ribbon and a silver bowl.

Best in Show is Guest's celebration of eccentricity, filled with off-the-wall characters spouting throwaway one-liners as they descend with their pets on the Mayflower Kennel Club's annual show in Philadelphia. I sat in a darkened screening room alone and burst out laughing several times at the antics . . . a very good sign.

Best in Show works so well at what it's aiming to do because Guest's large ensemble cast plays it straight, clueless to a fault about the inane things they're saying and doing. They take themselves very seriously and the jokes come non-stop because the film is, essentially, played like a series of skits.

Guest has had good experience with this sort of thing, having co-written and co-starred as one of the bandmates in Rob Reiner's pseudo-rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap , and having co-written and directed Waiting for Gufman, a mockumentary about a small Missouri town's attempts to put together a Broadway-style show for its centennial.

The principal characters in Best in Show are a zany enough collection on the surface. But Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy have given each one a goofy personality to play off and goofier situations to get caught in.

Guest plays Harlan Pepper who, in addition to doting on his prize bloodhound, is a part-time ventriloquist who also loves reciting the names of every kind of nut there is, a comforting mantra from his childhood growing up in Pine Nut, N.C.

Levy and Catherine O'Hara are Gerry and Cookie Fleck, low-rent Floridians with big hopes for Winky, their Norwich terrier for whom they've even made up a song, God Loves a Terrier. While the un-hip Gerry has two left feet -- literally -- Cookie's colorful past love life keeps popping up, to Gerry's surprise and distress. She's forever running into men who recall the passionate nights they spent together. Once in Philadelphia, they hope things will settle down so they'll have time to check out the Liberty Bell and the factory that makes cream cheese.

Hamilton and Meg Swan (Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey) are catalog-loving freaks with twin orthodonture work. They're worried about their Weimaraner, Beatrice, who's having a tough time of it after catching Hamilton and Meg making love. A psychiatrist has been called in.

Scott (John Michael Higgins) and Stefan (Michael McKean) are gay New Yorkers who travel to Philly with their Shih Tzu, Miss Agnes. Stefan met Scott at a previous dog show where Scott and a borzoi "had the same prance."

The voluptuous Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge) and her ancient husband, the wealthy Leslie Ward Cabot (Patrick Cranshaw), hope it will be three best-in-show ribbons for their fluffy poodle, Rhapsody in White, with the help of dog handler Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch). Christy treats her dogs with the kind of "tough love" she got at home growing up. "It worked for my Mom until she committed suicide in '81," Christy says without a hint of irony.

Meanwhile, Sherri Ann admits that the great age differences between her and Leslie don't matter since they really do have lots in common. "We like talking or not talking," she coos. "We could talk or not talk forever and still find things to not talk about."

Played out like unrehearsed, unstructured, stand-up interviews for the movie camera, the actors have a ball inflating their obsessed characters with offhanded comments while aggrandizing Guest's wacky set-ups that get wackier as they run a merry course.

There's little interaction between the couples, even once they're all at the dog show. They're tied together by the perplexed hotel manager (Ed Begley Jr.) and through very funny commentary by a pair of TV announcers. Fred Willard's genial, rambling Buck Louglin is an Everyman who clearly knows nothing about dog shows, yet feels the need to fill every bit of air time with a remark, no matter how inane. "In some countries," Buck says, gazing admiringly at the dogs in the toy dog category, "these dogs are eaten." This puts co-commentator Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock), a very proper and knowledgeable Brit, on edge.

Guest and Levy keep it edgy, too. You never know what crazy thing will next pop out of someone's mouth. It keeps Best in Show bounding along, right up to a blue ribbon.


Best in Show

Starring : Christopher Guest, Jennifer Coolidge, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Fred Willard.

Producers: A Warner Bros. release of a Castle Rock production written by Guest and Levy, directed by Guest.

Rated: PG-13, contains profanity, adult themes.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.