BEST IN SHOW (2000)

  • Director: Christopher Guest
  • Writers: Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy
  • Starring: Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean, Michael Hitchcock, Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Christopher Guest, Larry Miller, Jim Piddock, Fred Willard, and Ed Begley, Jr.
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to HBO Max or Showtime App, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

Among a certains segment of the movie-watching audiences that includes me, the series of “mockumentary” movies directed and written by Christopher Guest are among the funniest movies of the last couple decades. For the unfamiliar, they are all done in the form of documentaries, but all of the silly characters are of course portrayed by actors. Though Guest and his collaborators write the basic scenarios, nearly all of the dialogue is improvised by the actors themselves. After an initial success with his screenplay for 1984’s This is Spinal Tap, about a heavy metal band, in which Guest also played one of the band members, he returned to the very specific subgenre several more times as both writer and director, starting with 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, about a community theater production. All of these later movies have pretty much the same cast and style, and none of them really became a breakout hit in a box office sense. As I said, however, they are all beloved with some of us, and I think there’s a strong argument to be made that Best in Show is, well, the best of the bunch.

I think what I like about these is their sense of humor. There are some very silly jokes, but they are always presented completely deadpan, and the characters are well drawn enough that we actually care about them. Even knowing the outcome, the final pause in Best in Show before the winner of the dog show is announced is genuinely tense, because we have come to have a vested interest in the outcome. I think that specific mix is closer to British comedy, which tends to be more my speed, than most American comedy, which is probably not a coincidence: Guest was born in Britain, and in fact is technically nobility. Seriously, his legal name is “The Right Honourable Lord Haden-Guest.” Many of his collaborators over the years have come out of Canadian comedy, including Eugene Levy, who co-wrote this film. I would love for the recent runaway success of Schitt’s Creek (which I love) to bring more people to this movie. Like the show, it co-stars Levy and Catherine O’Hara as a funny romantic couple, though here their couple is the plucky, lower-class underdogs, as opposed to the beleaguered aristocrats of the TV series.

Other members of the recurring cast of these movies include Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, and Ed Begley, Jr. In Best in Show, they portray various members of the dog show coming together for the annual “Mayflower Dog Show” in Philadelphia. In fact, the enduring cult status of Best in Show led directly to NBC getting the idea to annually air the National Dog Show from Philadelphia on Thanksgiving after the Macy’s Parade. The parody actually came before the national notoriety of the thing its parodying, which is not how it usually goes.

Levy and O’Hara play an everyday couple from Florida that drives up with their Norwich Terrier, dogged by Levy’s total lack of cool (in one of the movie’s silliest jokes, he was literally born with “two left feet”) and O’Hara’s past sleeping with “hundreds of guys.” Posey and her husband (Michael Hitchcock) play an incredibly high-strung couple whose tensions spread to their Weimaraner, probably my favorite iteration of this type on screen. Guest himself plays a barely-understandable deep southerner with a bloodhound, while Higgins and McKean play a flamboyant and zany gay couple with Shih Tzus. Lynch plays a Type A “celebrity handler” hired by rich sugar baby Jennifer Coolidge (who had recently played the original “MILF” in American Pie) for her two-time defending champion poodle. And Willard and Jim Piddock are the memorable announcing team bringing the dog show to TV.

Best in Show’s greatness for me comes from the sympathy it has for all of its main characters. There were times, including around 2000, I’d say, when that quality was rare in a comedy. It’s one of the things I’ve loved about Schitt’s Creek, too. It understands that its characters may do deeply silly things, but that doesn’t make them bad people. All of its couples that are together at the beginning are still together at the end, even if maybe they shouldn’t be. Even Posey and Hitchcock’s high-anxiety couple are really only hurting themselves, even when she starts yelling at a hotel maid about how she’s going to call INS. If they would just cut down on the coffee a little, this movie thinks they’d be fine.

And so we’re left able to smile and feel good watching the movie again and again. It has some of my favorite comedy bits in anything, like the scene where McKean points out that Higgins has packed seven kimonos despite the fact they will be in Philadelphia for 48 hours, and Higgins responds by going to get an eighth. Or Larry Miller’s memorable appearance as one of O’Hara’s old flames, the world’s least effective suicide negotiator (“I’ll let you in on a trade secret, they always jump”). Or Guest explaining how his dog communicates with the judges via telepathy.

I think Best in Show is the most memorable of these movies, not least because I have become a dog person, but if you watch it and like it you’ll likely also enjoy some of the other, similar movies with the same director and main cast, such as A Mighty Wind (about a folk festival) or For Your Consideration (about the cast members of an indie movie called Home for Purim that find themselves unexpectedly the subjects of awards buzz). Unfortunately, one of those main cast members, Fred Willard, passed away earlier this year at the age of 86. Willard’s announcer in this movie is absolutely perfect, a sports idiot doing his best outside his milieu. At one point late in the movie he turns to his partner and just asks, “How much do you think I can bench press?” Willard’s final performance came as Steve Carrell’s character’s father in the Netflix series Space Force, which came out two weeks after Wilalrd’s passing.

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