Several years ago, I stopped off at a motel in Massachusetts and discovered that about half of the other guests had checked in for the night with their prize canines. Exotic, fluffy breeds were paraded behind the motel in preparation for a regional dog show the following day. None of the owners, or handlers, showed the slightest regard for anybody else, least of all the other entrants; they had the sniffy disdain that royalty exhibits for pretenders to the crown. The dogs, even after being enclosed in cages for the night, shared in this hauteur. They wouldn’t even deign to bark, and they probably were better-fed than most of the motel staff.
The bizarreness of this episode came back to me as I watched Best in Show, which is about contestants vying for the top prize at a major dog show in Philadelphia. The film, which was directed by Christopher Guest – who also stars in it and was co-writer with Eugene Levy – captures the preening and the deep-down silliness (though not to its participants) of the world-within-a-world of dog contests. Guest actually staged his own show with his cast members mixed in with real handlers and judges, and the verisimilitude makes everything seem even funnier. We’ve entered a specialized universe that nonetheless seems instantly recognizable; the procession of egos on display during the Mayflower Dog Show is flabbergasting in the same way that, say, the Oscars or the Tonys are. The perfectly coiffed dogs trotted out for our delectation are almost comically beautiful, and so, in their loopy narcissism, are their owners. It’s not just that many of them look like their dogs. Maneuvering their canines through their motions, they are their dogs.
Guest uses the same kind of improvisational, mock-documentary structure as in his last film, Waiting For Guffman, which was about the staging of a small-town musical and featured Guest as Off-Off Broadway director-in-exile Corky St. Clair, with his flamer’s flamboyance and gumption. Guest plays Harlan Pepper in Best in Show, a fly-fishing-shop owner from Pine Nut, North Carolina, who has high hopes for his bloodhound, Hubert. He’s absolutely convincing, right down to the slow, syrupy drawl and heavy-lidded peepers. There’s a touch of the grandee about Harlan. Guest isn’t just a revue-sketch comic; he’s a real actor, perhaps a great one. Most comic actors start with a character and then fine-tune it to caricature. Guest reverses the process: He gives you someone you think you can size up at a glance, then proceeds to add layer upon layer. Guest allows his performers a great deal of latitude in this film, and many of them are pungent, peerless jokesters, but he gives himself over to his own role with a steel-willed commitment that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a comic actor of his generation. Guest’s Harlan believes he exists on a spiritual plane with his pet. When he shows Hubert off before the judges, he lopes beside him in a contrapuntal prance. Hubert and Harlan have the same red hair and the same big-limbed grace and winsome dogginess; they might be different swatches of the same species.
Guest shot the film in super 16-mm., mostly with handheld cameras, and the technique allows the performers to work up their characters right in front of us. Much more footage was shot than made it into the movie, but the cut-and-paste randomness is part of the fun; the tantrums and the silliness on display don’t have that prepared-for feeling common to so many movie comedies. Lots of comics from the SCTV and Saturday Night Live generation have made it into the movies, but most of their films feel straitjacketed by stale dramatic ploys derived from Broadway and sitcoms. Guest is one of the few filmmakers who recognize that if you want to capture some of that original improvisational freshness, you need to carry over the impromptu spirit into the act of filmmaking itself.
Guest has a relish for eccentricity that seems more deeply British than American. He’s not interested in normalcy. The cast of characters in Best in Show are a gaggle of silly gooses and dolts and dauphins, and Guest lavishes his sincerest sympathies on them. (The nuttier they are, the more affection he shows.) The yuppie lawyers Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) fear their own relationship problems are turning their sleek, imperially mopey weimaraner, Beatrice, into a head case. Their almost psychotic indulgence of Beatrice is all of a piece with the way they shop by mail-order catalogue only; in both cases, the less contact with people, the better. Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara), with their Norwich terrier, Winky, are so mismatched that they seem perfectly harmonious together, like the fittings in a Cubist painting. A menswear salesman, Gerry is owlish and bucktoothed and always a beat behind the scattered sensuality of his wife, who keeps encountering old boyfriends on the trek from their home in Florida to Philadelphia. The guys from her checkered past have such disdain for Gerry that they practically drool on her in his presence. Cookie has chosen the sedate life, and yet she’s piqued by their attentions; she enjoys being in heat again.
There’s also professional handler Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) and his longtime partner, hair-salon owner Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean), and their Shih Tzu, Miss Agnes. These two turn their Philly hotel room into a casbah of kimonos and silk, and treat the Mayflower procession as a fashion show. In the most touchingly deranged moment in the movie, Stefan sings a lullaby, “Barbara Allen,” to Miss Agnes’s partner, Tyrone (named after Tyrone Power), over the phone. I could have done with a bit less of the butch-bimbo combo (Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge) and their poodle, but providing the Mayflower Dog Show’s play-by-play is Fred Willard as broadcast announcer Buck Laughlin, and he steals the movie whenever his motormouth is running, which is most of the time. (In this elite company, stealing the movie is grand theft indeed.) Laughlin’s Joe Garagiola-ish bonhomie can’t disguise the fact that he doesn’t begin to know what he’s talking about, though he’s blithely unfazed by his own cluelessness. In his own blockhead way, Laughlin gets right to the down-and-dirty point: The stream of idiocies he spouts are like the thoughts we might have while watching the dog show if we let our id run wild. (He has fun wrapping his mouth around Shih Tzu.)
Most contemporary comedies are so timorous when it comes to being politically incorrect, or else so in-your-face about it, that Best in Show, with its deadpan incivilities, is practically a comedy of manners by comparison. It indulges our worst suspicions about the way people behave, but it’s also a tribute to how screw-loose we can be. The real prize specimens in this movie parade about on two legs, not four.