Leads up

"What we're talking about is standards."

BITCH, BITCH, BITCH—why aren't there more movies about the drama-filled world of professional dog shows, you complain? Christopher Guest has heard your plea and finally tackled that shaggy subject. Of course, the writer and star of 1996's genius comedy Waiting for Guffman is less interested in the weimaraners, shih tzus, and bloodhounds than he is in certain less-pedigreed traits of human behavior. As with Guffman, his preferred working method is to select a familiar ensemble cast of gifted improvisational performers, supply them with the outline of a plot, then start filming. (One suspects that there's enough material left out of Best in Show to supply an entire network's worth of superior TV programming.) From this mockumentary footage, Guest has distilled 90 minutes of sly observational humor about how we use pets as the idealized representations of our imperfect lives, the furry, drooling, leg-humping vehicles of our hopes and dreams.

BEST IN SHOW

directed by Christopher Guest with Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Christopher Guest, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, and Michael McKean opens October 13 at Broadway Market

Half the cast of Guffman is on hand: Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara play Florida rubes road-tripping with their Norwich terrier to Philadelphia's hoity-toity Mayflower Dog Show. Parker Posey is a neurotic type-A lawyer in counseling with her husband and show dog. Fred Willard arrives as a non sequitur-spouting sports commentator with an utter disregard for the pampered pooches. Guest himself plays an unprepossessing North Carolina backwoodsman with a tendency to give voice to his prize bloodhound's inner thoughts. Spinal Tap vet Michael McKean plays the less flamboyant half of a gay Manhattan couple in town for the big competition.

Guest unites all these stories and characters into a big game-style documentary format, introducing us to the various contenders beforehand, following them on their journey to Philadelphia, then depicting the tense competition itself. (Although Show doesn't just end with the awards ceremony.) The dramatic logic is impeccable: The pressure keeps building until the final performance that has to be triumph or fiasco. Someone's got to win; everybody else goes home disappointed.

IF THAT SOUNDS like Guffman, it is. The big show phenomenon brings out our worst and best behavior, everything most deserving of mockery and laughter. Yet one of the remarkable qualities of Guffman was Guest's underlying respect for his characters' belief in the transformative potential of stagecraft. Those hick-town losers enacted on a smaller, less competent scale what makes entertainment magical and enchanting even for a showbiz pro like Guest. So it is with the hounds. "Mockumentary" really isn't the right word here, since Show isn't mocking the dog owners and handlers in a mean-spirited way.

Instead of broad hilarity and ridicule, there's a subcurrent of low-key laughter running throughout the picture. Big yucks are few, and there's only one show-stopping moment when Michael Hitchcock—as Posey's husband—gives their misbehaving weimaraner an inspirational psych-up speech. "Look at me!" he screams at the evasive cur, like some demented De Niro of dog handlers. Unlike most Hollywood comedies, Show requires viewers to pay as close attention to the details of human behavior as Guest's cast does in realizing their roles. It's the kind of film that bears repeated viewing and will likely have a long life on video (like Guffman).

For Guest, each well-coiffed canine on display is the product of a stage parent watching nervously from the wings. "All that kind of anxiety and chaos takes place behind the curtain," says one overconfident handler, who's as emotionally overinvested in her charge as anyone else. Guest's whole point is to pull the curtain back on the freak show backstage, although the result—while thoroughly amusing—is sometimes almost too enervated to be called comedy. All that keeps Show from being a total success is the lingering feeling that Guest, like his elegantly manicured dogs, doesn't want to stoop to anything unrefined or obviously funny.

 
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