Friday, March 14, 2014

Watch This: Best in Show

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Best in Show (2000)
Co-written and directed by Christopher Guest

"A dog reflects the family life. Whoever saw a frisky dog in a gloomy family, or a sad dog in a happy one? Snarling people have snarling dogs, dangerous people have dangerous ones."
--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

One of the many joys in watching Best in Show, a faux-documentary (or "mockumentary") which follows the owners of five show dogs as they travel with their competing canines to Philadelphia for a prestigious dog show, is how well the film's makers seem to understand the truth of the above quotation.  The owners (and handlers) of each of the five dogs exhibit a range of quirks and personality types, and each dog seems perfectly suited to its owner(s), mirroring many of the qualities that make each owner such a compelling, endearing character.

The film begins as each of the dogs and their owners are introduced before preparing for the journey to Philadelphia and the competition itself.  Bickering yuppies Hamilton and Meg Swan (Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey) have a Weimaraner who becomes as neurotic and upset as they are as a result of their overinvolvement with her.  Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) are a Florida couple whose scruffy terrier exemplifies their appeal as normal, everyday folks who struggle to finance the trip.  North Carolina fishing shop owner Harlan Pepper (Christopher Guest) extols the virtues of the hound dog, displaying the type of loyalty that he values so much in his bloodhound, Hubert.  Eccentric New York gay couple Scott and Stefan (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean) exhibit a flamboyance matched by their stylish shih-tzus.  Lastly, there is buxom, airheaded trophy wife Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), whose focus on superficial appearances is reflected by her elegantly-coiffed, clipped white poodle.

As the owners check into the expensive Philadelphia hotel and the various dogs begin to compete for the top prize, Best in Show builds a tension that may be unexpected in an outright comedic film.  Viewers may find themselves surprised by how strongly they may be rooting for one dog or another (or one owner or another, since it is the owners who are really the film's focus).  One of Best in Show's biggest achievements is that it is more compelling than most actual competition documentaries, a sub-genre of the documentary that is perhaps best exemplified by the superb 2002 film Spellbound, which chronicles the adolescent competitors in the 1999 National Spelling Bee.

Best in Show works so well because it is so expertly-crafted, coming from the brilliant creators of the mockumentaries This is Spinal Tap (1984) and Waiting for Guffman (1996).  The script is terrifically funny from start to finish.  The cast is uniformly outstanding, creating fleshed-out, true-to-life characters out of roles that could easily have devolved into caricatures.  If the actors were not well-known, it could be easy to mistake the characters for real people.  Perhaps the film's most important asset is that, although its characters are certainly of recognizable types, and although the film often pokes fun of those types, the humor is never malicious or overtly critical.  Each character is very lovingly written and portrayed.

If this film has you sitting up and begging for more, check out the filmmakers' follow-up mockumentary effort, the folk music-centric A Mighty Wind (2003), which is also available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection.

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