When I was a mere soft-headed lad of pre-puberty, I was in love with a dog.
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His name was Shane, he was a Chocolate Labrador Retriever and, to me, he represented everything good about life. My dog was a warm island in an increasingly-baffling ocean of adults. His wet-coat perfume, his hot musky breath, his adoration and loyalty all formed the center of my universe.
I read boy-and-his-dog books like some people read the Bible, I watched Timmy and Lassie every afternoon without fail, I subscribed to Dog World magazine, I had a poster of the American Kennel Club breeds scotch-taped above my bed. My very first piece of professionally-published writing, at age 12, was a two-page article in Jack & Jill magazine called “Caring For Your Dog.” Among other literary embarrassments, it contained these words:
The first thing to worry about is housebreaking your dog. Never, I repeat, never punish your pet unless he is caught in the act. Otherwise, it confuses him. If you do catch your dog making a mess, strike him on the nose lightly (never on the head, because it could cause brain damage).
Yes, there’s no denying it: I was delirious with doggy fever.
But I recovered. Eventually, I went away to college and discovered women, booze, sex and French cinema—though not necessarily in that order—and my canis delirium wore off like the morning mist of a strange dream.
Still, if it weren’t for a certain beautiful woman, Francois Truffaut and a couple years of therapy, I might very well have ended up in Best in Show, Christopher Guest’s scathing satire about “people who love dogs and the dogs that tolerate them.”
As in the other mockumentaries he’s written (This is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman), Guest skewers the pretensions and follies of the human race on a sharp stick then, with a barely-suppressed sniggle*, waves them around for all to see. In Spinal Tap, it was rock musicians; in Guffman, it was small-town community theater. This time, dog shows are on the pointy end of the stick.
[*Sniggle = snicker + giggle]
Guest’s humor is admittedly an acquired taste. Some of it is so dry it makes unbuttered toast look soggy. The writer-director is at his best when he’s delivering the most absurd behavior of humanity with a stone-sober face. Some audiences might not get it, unable to appreciate Guest’s precise ability to lampoon dog lovers—those slightly-pretentious people in their Eddie Bauer sweaters, those adults who break out into cooing baby talk whenever a four-legged beast enters the room, those folks who walk around with half-dried dog slobber on their cheeks and are damn proud of it. I should know, I was once one of those silly, endearing, tail-wagging individuals (minus the Eddie Bauer sweaters but very heavy on the cheek-slobber).
Here’s a good litmus test as to whether or not you’ll like Best in Show:
In the first scene, Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) are sitting in therapy, discussing how they’ve been bothered by the fact that their child Beatrice has been watching them during sex. Meg and Hamilton are so traumatized, they can barely talk about it. Then the shrink looks down at Beatrice and we see she’s a Weimaraner, very glumly lying on her own miniature therapy couch. Whether or not Beatrice is depressed because she’s seen her owners doing it doggy-style is another matter all together. Like most of the canines in Best in Show, she patiently abides the hyperactive emotions of her humans.
It’s a great scene to start the film with because it shows the breed of humor that awaits us in the next 90 minutes. If you don’t think dog therapy is funny—even in the remotest, deepest-buried marrow of your funnybone—then you’re probably better off spending your 90 minutes doing something else.
For those who abide with Guest and his sidelong (but affectionate) glance at our slightly-skewed universe, they’re in for a real doggy treat. Not all of the film’s humor (largely improvised by a cast working from a bare-bones script blueprint) succeeds in busting our guts or plastering silly grins on our faces; some of the attempts at satire are so obtuse, they leave us staring puzzled at the screen and saying, “Ohhhkaaay….”
But the flat moments are few and far between. Instead, Best in Show is filled with lines like these, delivered by Eugene Levy, who plays a nerdish salesman about to set out on a road trip with his wife: “We’re really excited to go to Philly. We’re gonna see the Liberty Bell and the place where they make the cream cheese.”
Best in Show is wickedly funny but it’s one of those movies that might not make you start laughing until hours after you’ve stopped watching.
The mockumentary (or “dogumentary,” if you prefer) centers around the 125th Annual Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show where 3,000 pooches of all breeds gather to compete for the grand champion title of Best in Show. In addition to the Hamiltons (a Yuppie couple who were “raised among catalogues—it’s so much easier that way…we don’t have to deal with people”), Best in Show follows several other dog owners as they prepare to descend on Philadelphia and its cream cheese:
* Sheri Ann Ward Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), the young trophy wife of rich octogenarian Leslie Ward Cabot. She’s a product of silicone and face lifts who will instantly remind viewers of Anna Nicole Smith (especially in bubble-headed statements like these she delivers to the camera: “We both have so much in common. We both love soup…and snow peas…and, uh, talking…and not talking. We could not talk or talk forever and still find things to not talk about.”). Sheri is joined by dog trainer and breeder Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch) whose overconfidence at winning this year’s Best in Show is fueled by the fact that she and Sheri Ann’s dog have won the show for the past two years.
* Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) and Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean), lovers (as well as dog lovers) who swoosh in with their pampered Shih Tzu, a small dog with a marvelous fountain of hair erupting from the top of its head.
* Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) a lower-middle class couple from Florida who travel to Philly with big dreams for their Norwich terrier Winky. Cookie—with her heavy makeup, multiple dangling earrings and too-tight outfits—is the dog handler of the family, while Gerry—with horn-rimmed glasses, an overbite and two left feet (literally)—cheerleads from the sidelines.
* Harlan Pepper (played by Guest himself), a bachelor from Pine Nut, North Carolina who owns a country store called the Fishin’ Hole. He hits the road with his redbone bloodhound in an RV, singing tunes he’s composed, practicing his ventriloquism and telling funny “nut” stories (“I used to be able to name every nut there was. Used to drive my mama crazy. Lessee, there’s macadamia nut…pistachio nut…pine nut…”).
And finally, there’s Buck Laughlin, the film’s funniest creation by Guffman alum Fred Willard. Together with Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock), Buck provides hysterically aloof, off-color color commentary at the Mayflower Show. A mix of Howard Cosell and Howard Stern, Buck Laughlin knows nothing about dogs, but doesn’t let that stop his motor-mouth sportscasting. Whether it’s speculating that the bloodhound might stand a better chance of winning if only he wore a Sherlock Holmes hat and had a pipe in his mouth, or spouting lines like, “Lemme ask you this, Trevor…Does money ever exchange hands out there? I mean, do you think there are any sticky palms among those judges?”—Willard is a fountain of comic joy.
In fact, all of the actors create characters that lodge in your brain and refuse to leave. The credits will tell you that Guest and Levy “wrote” the movie, but in reality, most of it is the product of incredibly creative improvisation between cast members. Guest and his troupe have made a movie that’s much more than the dog show follies—this is a satire that cuts through America’s pretensions and, with the pinprick of a word, deflates the big dreams of small people.
I’m just glad that I recovered from my dog fever before Guest’s camera found me.
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