Life's a Bitch

Christopher Guest frolics with a pack of neurotics and their dogs in Best in Show

Slash a steer's throat or snip the beak off a bird and most people don't give anything remotely resembling a damn. But take, for instance, an adorable dog--perhaps that peculiar lupine descendant you live to shelter, feed, and soul kiss. Imagine laying that poor pooch's head on the block, then dropping the ax, thereafter gutting its carcass, draining its blood for sausage, tossing its paws in the glue vat, and tanning its hide to make wallets. Horrifying? Well, it all depends upon who is making the soup, but the real reason for rendering this gruesome scenario is to illustrate the knee-jerk response that is characteristic of A.C.D., or American Canine Dependence. Most people carry some strain of this sentimental malaise, mainly because it's just so easy to love dogs and so incredibly difficult to love people.

Christopher Guest knows this, and, as a result, his new comedy, Best in Show, should ride a gravy train of enthusiasm from Chihuahua to Labrador. The keenly observant wit who brought us The Big Picture and Waiting for Guffman also shows a great sense of compassion for his bipedal subjects, so the cute-dog antics, despite their consumer allure, aren't even the main point of this exercise. Rather, Guest, along with cowriter Eugene Levy, uses acute A.C.D. to...er...tap into America, allowing the dogs and their obsessive owners to lead us through this big, strange country. The destination is Philadelphia, where the mutts and their masters will compete in the prestigious 125th Annual Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. En route, we're treated to some of the most astute--if obvious--domestic caricatures outside of a Mike Judge series.

The movie opens by introducing us to our hopeful contestants, sometimes in faux-documentary interviews (a brilliant and endlessly amusing stylistic hand-me-down from Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap), and sometimes in harrowing scenes from their lives, as when yuppies Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) consult their analyst (Jay Brazeau) about their moody Weimaraner. "Beatrice has been showing signs of depression," the Illinois lawyers somberly explain. "She's also been very angry with us, ever since she saw us having sex." Before Meg can fill in too many details regarding the Kama Sutra's "Congress of the Cow," however, we swiftly cut to Cookie and Gerry Fleck (Catherine O'Hara and Levy) of Fern City, Florida, who'll be trekking north to see if their terrier, Winky, will take the top prize. Intimately challenged in their own unique way (Cookie has had hundreds of boyfriends in her day--some of whom pop up promiscuously throughout the movie--while geeky Gerry's declaration of Casanovahood invites peals of laughter), the two bumble through the heartland much like the Griswolds of National Lampoon's Vacation, in which Levy also appeared as a shifty car dealer. (The faithful will remember his clarion call of quality: "You think you hate it now, but wait'll you drive it.")

Sexual healing seems to be the order of the day, as an absurdly coifed standard poodle and a winsome Shih Tzu are packed off to the show by their respective owners, both same-sex couples. The poodle, Rhapsody in White, is handled by the Anne Heche-like Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch), who also enjoys handling the dog's voluptuous owner, Sherri Ann Ward Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), an overeater in the vein of Anna Nicole Smith, whose sugar daddy, Leslie Ward Cabot (Patrick Cransaw), remains bug-eyed and oblivious. Balancing the equation are Tribeca hairdresser Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean) and his own personal handler, Scott Donlon (John Michael Higgins), who gleefully fuss over their Shih Tzu, Miss Agnes, when they're not fretting over how many kimonos to bring to Philly.

Rounding out the primary cast is Guest himself, playing an eccentric loner named Harlan Pepper. Like McKean, Guest is an alumnus of Spinal Tap, so pouring himself into caricature--in this case, a rube from North Carolina who runs a fly-fishing shop--comes naturally to him. While Pepper shuttles his chunky bloodhound, Hubert, out of rebel realms to "put some hurtin' on them Yankee dogs," we accompany the hopeful Confederates into their mobile home. During these segments, Guest seems to be challenging us (and possibly himself) to accept the guy's pre-Civil War accent, bad mustache, and self-obsessed cutesiness. There are times--as when he proudly rattles off the names of various nuts, or practices some particularly shoddy ventriloquism--that one must suppress an urge to bolt from the theater. Fortunately, as with all of the characters, Guest has clever transformations in store for Pepper.

Since so much of the movie is clearly improvised (Bless Coolidge for delivering, totally deadpan, the line "We could not talk, or talk forever, and still find things not to talk about"), only a very loose structure strings the events together. Once we arrive at the show, this improvisation ceases to matter anyway, as the fun is in watching these weirdos obsess over their furry friends. Posey and Hitchcock--who have by this point recounted their first meeting in two Starbucks across the street from one another--professing their love for catalogs over people, provide the majority of the film's anxious barking. As a hotel manager, Ed Begley Jr., turns in a wonderfully wry performance, generously offering a strapped couple lodging in a utility closet. Fred Willard and Jim Piddock provide the most predictable moments, as official commentators--one rude, one a prude--who sauce up the competition with blather and bickering.

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