There's a fine line between a kind-hearted satire and a mean-spirited comic attack, and actor/filmmaker Christopher Guest comes down on the side of the former in "Best in Show," a laugh-out-loud mock documentary about the world of pampered dogs and their obsessed owners. Guest took a similar approach in 1996's "Waiting For Guffman," having previously learned much about the art when he co-starred in Rob Reiner's 1984 "This is Spinal Tap."
Here, Guest reteams with his "Guffman" co-writer, Eugene Levy, and with several members of that film's cast. Together, they try a different tack: Instead of simply deriding these patently ridiculous characters as they travel from tiny burgs and big cities all across America to the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show in Philadelphia, the movie views them with varying degrees of affection, imbuing them with qualities that enable them to emerge as more than mere buffoons.
Take Gerry and Cookie Fleck, for example. A financially struggling Fern City, Fla., couple played to hilarious effect by "SCTV" veterans Levy and Catherine O'Hara, they demonstrate a kind of sweet reliance on each other, a bond that's partially based on their feelings for their Norwich terrier, Winky. That emotional intimacy is achieved despite the constant re-emergence of Cookie's 100 or so past lovers, all forgotten by her but uniformly eager to recite the details of their sexual liaisons. Gerry, blessed with buck teeth and two left feet (literally), seems genuinely pained by these graphic remembrances of his wife's promiscuous past.
Harlan Pepper (Guest), a fly-fish maker from rural North Carolina and the owner of a prize bloodhound, is also treated with a certain dignity (and perhaps even a quiet nobility) as he relates his hopes and dreams for the future. At the same time, it's difficult to stifle laughter (with him? at him?) when Harlan imagines the words his beloved puppy, Hubert, might speak to the judges. Ditto the scene in which the drawling, truck-driving Hank Williams fan takes his ventriloquist act -- his real passion -- to a room full of bored military retirees.
Other characters don't have it quite as easy. Shrill, shrieking yuppie lawyers Hamilton and Meg Swan (Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey) are first seen describing their courtship, which began when they glimpsed each other at Starbucks -- two different Starbucks shops, on separate sides of the street. In consultation with their therapist, they lament the ruination of their sex life due to the jealousy of their child. The "child," we learn, is really an independent-minded Weimaraner by the name of Beatrice.
Among the remaining contestants are Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) and Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean), a gay couple from New York City. (Their Shih Tzu's name: Miss Agnes.) There's also Sherri Ann Ward Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), the trophy wife of an ancient, barely-there millionaire, and their poodle's lesbian trainer, Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch).
Fred Willard shows up in the third act as loose-cannon TV commentator Buck Laughlin, and nearly runs away with the movie. Sharing air space with calm, cool, collected and knowledgeable Englishman Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock), Buck unleashes a string of non-sequiturs and inappropriate comments that constitute the funniest moments of a script that was reportedly improvised from a 15-page outline. Dogs from different countries just might bark with different accents, Buck suggests to his dumbfounded British colleague. And then there's his inane suggestion that certain small dogs are treated as delicacies in some foreign countries. With so many winning performances in Guest's film, picking the finest is a tough choice. But I'd call Willard's riotous turn the best in show.