Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman (review)

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Guest Star

Put Christopher Guest right on top of the list of They Who Can Do No Wrong. As if the recent DVD release and reappearance in theaters of This Is Spinal Tap weren’t enough for fans of his diverse talent and deadpan humor, he now bestows upon us Best in Show, another of the hilarious and poignant mockumentaries that, in the vein of his 1996 film Waiting for Guffman, poke gentle fun not only at their fictional subjects but at their real-life counterparts and movie audiences as well.

gone to the dogs
Most people connect the word “geek” with science fiction or computers, but the truth is that every imaginable arena of human interest has its geeks: the devotees who take their hobbies beyond the realm of pastime and make it a lifestyle. There are stamp geeks and doll geeks and sports geeks and, yes, movie geeks. We’re– I mean, they’re harmless eccentrics, for the most part, but geeks are easy targets for teasing.

And so Guest takes on dog-show geeks in Best in Show, turning his withering eye on folks who don’t just treat their pets as surrogate children but feel the need for the entire world to acknowledge their doggies as special and wonderful. Written by Guest and SCTV‘s Eugene Levy, and directed by Guest, Best in Show reunites much of the cast from Waiting for Guffman for another partly improvised slice of virtual real life that’s laugh-out-loud funny in its sharply pointed observations of the foibles of ordinary people.

Philadelphia’s Mayflower Kennel Club is about to host its annual dog show, and as dog nerds from around the country descend, Guest’s cameras “follow” a handful of entrants and their animals in their excitable preparations. There are the Swans, Hamilton (Michael Hitchcock) and Meg (Parker Posey: Scream 3, You’ve Got Mail), whose dedication to their depressed weimaraner is as frightening as their obsession with upscale-catalog shopping and brand names. The Flecks, awkward Gerry (Eugene Levy) and floozy Cookie (Catherine O’Hara: The Nightmare Before Christmas), hail from Fern City, Florida, where they write hymns about their beloved terrier, Winkie. Tribeca’s Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins: Wag the Dog) and Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean: Mystery, Alaska, True Crime) buy food for their Shi Tzus at the gourmet butcher. The standard poodle owned by superrich nitwit Sheri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge) and trained by the intimidating Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch) has won Best in Show at Mayflower for the past several years, and both expect that their close association with kennel club president Dr. Theodore W. Millbank III (Bob Balaban: Cradle Will Rock) will ensure another win. And finally there’s Harlan Pepper (Christopher Guest: Small Soldiers), a North Ca’lina fisherman and bait-shop owner, “a bloodhound man” who is showing sad-faced Hubert.

Most of these actors have done comedy together before, in Guffman, on Saturday Night Live or SCTV, or both. They anticipate one another’s reactions so well that it’s impossible to tell what’s improvised and what’s scripted, and they in fact make it all feel so off-the-cuff that if you weren’t in the know you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s utterly unrehearsed and entirely true. (The only giveaway is the intercut multiple camera angles in some scenes that clue you in that those bits were obviously shot more than once.) And the actors inhabit their characters so completely that there’s very little actorly about their performances: Guest submerses himself in Harlan, his just slightly exaggerated accent serving to make him more rather than less believable; Higgins (who convincingly played David Letterman in the cable movie The Late Shift) makes his Scott, who could have been an over-the-top queer caricature, a warmly funny and genuine portrayal of a way-out-of-the-closet gay man.

All of the characters are flawed in the ways that real people are — Cookie’s randy past and Gerry’s resultant insecurity, for example, and of course everyone’s compensating dog fixations — and those weaknesses are the objects of the film’s humor, but the actors never let their quest to make us laugh at them get out of hand. They keep the characters authentic, and the resulting humor is much more heartfelt. What passes for humor too often these days (see There’s Something About Mary, the upcoming Meet the Parents) is about degradation, in seeing in how many ways a character can be ridiculously and preposterously humiliated, till the situation and the character’s reactions to it must abandon all semblance of reality. Here, though, our sympathy for Best in Show‘s characters is vital to the humor — if we couldn’t recognize a bit of our own faults in them, and couldn’t see a bit of our own worlds in theirs, the film would cease to be funny.

Dog-show chairman Graham Chissolm (Don Lake) is the perfect example. He waxes poetic about the solitude of the “blank canvas” of the empty arena before the dog show begins. It’s absurd, of course: it’s an arena, fer pete’s sake. But if you can sympathize with the need to inject a little grandeur into the mundane — and if you ever find yourself doing so as well, even if only in your imagination — then you’ll appreciate the simultaneously amiable and bitter humor of Best in Show.

the play’s the thing
A friend of mine who lives in Arkansas calls me her “glamorous New York friend,” because I live here and have worked in publishing. Never mind that most magazines I’ve worked for are little more than electronic sweatshops, and that only the very rich or very lucky manage to actually live in Manhattan (the outer boroughs are definitely not glamorous). New York City and its big industries — media, theater, film — have an allure felt only by those who don’t live here and don’t work in those worlds. Don’t get me wrong: The Big Apple is the capital of the world, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived here all my life that I can’t understand the romantic appeal, the way a fish doesn’t see the ocean that surrounds it.

That New York glamour is the main object of both mockery and celebration in Waiting for Guffman, the first faux documentary Guest and Levy collaborated on, again as cowriters and with the former directing. Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest) was a miserable failure in New York, even in Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway theater, but he’s the biggest fish in the little pond of Blaine, Missouri. He lived in New York — this is all that was needed to recommend him to the residents of this small town, and they have rallied around him and his Blaine Community Players. Now, as the town observes its 150th anniversary, Corky is their choice to produce a commemorative piece of theater.

Corky may actually surpass Spinal Tap‘s Nigel Tufnel as the ultimate expression of Guest’s genius. Corky is just this side of absurd, a tragicomic figure who is able to turn his professional defeat around and use it to fuel an illusion of success in a place where no one is well enough acquainted with the real thing to know better. He brings a bit of secondhand showbiz glam to people who only know secondhand: dentist Dr. Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), who is considered quite the comedian, “sat beside the class clown” in school; local celebs Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara) are famous not only as the stars of the Blaine Community Players but for their “glamour profession” running the town’s travel agency; town councilwoman Gwen Fabin-Blunt (Deborah Theaker) gets lots of play out of her distant ancestor, town founder Blaine Fabin.

Corky’s modest abilities may not have cut it on Broadway, but in Blaine, he’s a towering talent. He not only writes an original musical for the town sesquicentennial, Red, White, and Blaine, he also directs it, choreographs the dance numbers, and designs the costumes and scenery… and the finished product does have, it must be said, a kind of rough, provincial charm. It’s silly, yes — featured bits of town history include a UFO landing and the story of how Blaine became the “Stool Capital of the World” — but the joy with which these treasured local tall tales are received by Red, White, and Blaine‘s small but enthusiastic audience is genuine. And if the townsfolk of Blaine are naïve enough to believe that a Broadway producer named Mort Guffman is actually going to fly out to Missouri to see the show… well, more power to them. Ignorance truly is bliss, sometimes.

Corky’s expertise extends to the ability to inspire unexpected creativity of people of limited talent: Dairy Queen queen Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey), the local taxidermist, an auto mechanic, all of whom stretch their wings, if only the tiniest bit, under Corky’s tutelage. It’s enough to make high school band teacher Lloyd Miller (Bob Balaban), who would normally have been directing such a prestigious production, jealous… which lends Waiting for Guffman some of the same pathos Best in Show has. These aren’t characters to be laughed at mindlessly — they are as real as fictional people get, and their limitations are reflections of our own.

“Theater is in my blood,” says Corky, by way of explanation for himself. He’s a funny character, and a sad one, but he’s living his dream, and that’s more than can be said for many of us.

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