Dysfunctional people bring me a lot of joy. For this reason, I tend to watch and become temporarily addicted to numerous trashy reality television shows with more enthusiasm than a normal person with an extra hour to spare. In the beginning stages of America’s obsession with watching the downfall of humanity for a couple of hours each week (or night), Christopher Guest graced us with the brilliant inside look at dog show politics in the 2000 mockumentary Best in Show.
Preceded by Waiting for Guffman and followed up by A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration, Best in Show represents the middle child in the long lineage of Christopher Guest’s improvisational mock documentaries that put a fluorescent light on well-meaning but socially awkward people with undying, and sometimes odd, passions. This particular film follows dog owners as they excitedly gear up to present their pooches at the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show for the annual competition. The movie plays out like a particularly hilarious and histrionic episode of Toddlers and Tiaras without the sobering post-show realization that you just witnessed some weird form of child abuse.
For 90 minutes, the viewer gets to meet the five dogs and their stage parents as they head to the competition and encounter one another in the high stress environment. Meet Meg Swan (Parker Posey) and her husband Hamilton (Michael Hitchcock), a brace-faced couple from Chicago living a yuppy fairytale of sorts (one scene includes the two recounting how two separate Starbucks helped bring them together). The couple and their weimaraner Beatrice have a strange relationship; the two treat their dog as if she were actually their daughter, even going so far as to bring her to therapy after she witnesses her owners having sex.
Then there is Harlan Pepper (Christopher Guest) with Hubert, his bloodhound. Pepper’s southern drawl and Bubba Gump-esque listing of all the names of nuts he knows is adorably humorous. While Pepper sets out to make his family proud, Gerry Fleck (Eugene Levy) and his wife Cookie (Catherine O’Hara) sing amusing songs dedicated to their terrier Winky. They also encounter several of Cookie’s past hook-ups along the way. Inevitable awkwardness ensues.
Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge) and her much older husband Leslie (Patrick Cranshaw) have a poodle named Rhapsody in White that is trained by Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch). Over the course of the film, the relationship between Sherri and Christy is revealed. And finally, Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) and his partner Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean) flamboyantly keep their game faces on with their Shih Tzu and a pair of homemade, flame-emblazoned leather pants.
The number of major players in this independent film is overwhelming, but it is never hard to follow each character. Screen time and character development is spread fairly evenly between each of the competing families. Their stories are spiced up with appearances from the always inappropriately funny Fred Willard and Jim Piddock as Buck Laughlin and Trevor Beckwith respectively; they are the commentators of the dog show with Piddock playing straight man to Willard’s unpredictable wild card spin. While a judge makes a decision, Willard’s character matter-of-factly points out: “And to think that in some countries these dogs are eaten!”
Not being a dog owner myself, let alone the owner of a show dog, I was thoroughly impressed by how included I felt in this peculiar world watching this film. Guest dives straight into the deep end of this quirky world of dog competitions without leaving the novices confused by the subject matter. Those who have a better understanding, however, may have a deeper appreciation, but despite my lack of familiarity, the film was inviting to the viewer through its attainable humor.
The true brilliance of Best in Show lies in the delivery. Natural and wonderfully subtle, the true gems of the film can almost be missed. Jane Lynch, whose star power has risen because of her role on Glee but really should have been attained because the comedy prowess she unleashed on the world long ago thanks to Mr. Guest, steals every one of the scenes she is featured in. During one exchange between the dog trainer Christy (Lynch) and the dog owner Sherri Ann (Coolidge), the trainer comments on the successful parenting style of her family and how her mother’s unconditional love, as she states, “worked for my family, you know…until my mom committed suicide in ’81.” Somehow turning a lighthearted memory into an extremely dark one in the most sickly humorous way seems almost impossible but is accomplished by this talented cast.
While the genius lies in the subtlety, the failure lies in the histrionics. While some melodramatic scenes come off successfully others were almost painful to watch an slightly annoying. Such a huge difference in the success of the dramatics can be seen in two scenes between Meg Swan (Posey) and her husband Hamilton (Hitchcock). In one scene, a melodramatic fight between the two over the location of a missing toy for their dog is almost off-putting and uncomfortable. However, the following scene featuring Meg frantically searching for the missing toy in the hotel room while screaming at the comically calm hotel manager (Ed Begley, Jr.) is so much more amusing, probably because of the juxtaposition of hysteria with subtlety.
An important component of this film is its sense of humanity. Each of these people are flawed, but they are not terrible human beings. Their problems are exaggerations of everyday issues; the singing, terrier-owning Flecks (the always brilliant Levy and O’Hara), for example, prove themselves to be the most charming couple in the mix as they deal with the resurfacing of exes and monetary issues that force them to stay in the hotel’s storage closet for the duration of the competition. After a winner is announced, Guest provides the viewers with a satisfying epilogue that offers glimpses into how life went for these average people after they helped their canines achieve their fifteen minutes of doggy fame.
Reaching even deeper, Best in Show is a compassionate portrayal of man and his best friend – the owners truly love their pets and care about their safety, health, and general well-being. For many, the dogs have brought — and in some cases kept — these people together. For that message alone, I would give this film a blue ribbon.