Friday, February 17, 2006

From the Treadmill: Best in Show

In honor of this week’s Westminster Kennel Club show, and in memory* of that little whippet who became lost in New York’s JFK airport, this week from the treadmill we review “Best in Show.” This mockumentary, or should I say, “dogumentary”, deftly skewers the world of purebred canines and their fanatical masters.

Directed by Christopher Guest, this is the second of his trilogy of fake documentaries that also includes “Waiting for Guffman” and “A Mighty Wind” (“This is Spinal Tap” which Guest starred in and co-wrote was directed by Rob Reiner.) As with all of these films, the actors are given free reign to improvise and although there is a storyline, it’s the comedic talents of the ensemble that keep things howling.

Fred Willard once again plays a buffoonish but well-intentioned clod who is incognizant of the inappropriateness of many of his comments.** Here he plays Buck Laughlin, TV play-by-play man for the big event. Throughout the show, he torments the broadcast’s color commentator, a sober dog expert, by cracking jokes about taking a Shih Tzu on a plane and suggesting that a pin-up calendar of women bathing their dogs (think "Cool Hand Luke") would be a good way to make some fast dough. When an unruly dog lunges for a judge during competition, Buck remarks, “She went after her like she was made out of ham.”

Also stealing the show is John Michael Higgins as Scott Donlan, a dog handler of a certain ‘persuasion’ who has never met a double entendre that he could resist. Truly in his element at the butcher's shop early in the film, he vamps his way through the entire film, dissecting his surroundings with a wicked wit while displaying a weakness for sexual innuendo. Upon learning that the hotel manager is of German/Irish descent (he’s not from “Norland” as first suspected), Scott swoons over visions of bratwurst and shillelaghs before trying to douse his subconscious by “paging Dr. Freud.”

The other characters who meet in Philadelphia for the Mayflower dog show are a zany mix of canine extremists and the weary dogs that must abide them:

Stefan Vanderhoof is Scott’s “euphemism”, a formerly married man who switched teams for the love of a Shih Tzu.

Christy Cummings is a Type A personality who favors short hair and sharply tailored suits, and nicknames the prized poodle that she handles, “Butch” (hint, hint).

Christie works for Sheri Ann Ward Cabot, the trophy wife of an elderly tycoon. Sheri Ann has found in Christie the young, strapping lover for which she has pined.

Cookie and Gerry Fleck are a happy couple from Florida, free of the pretense that surrounds a celebration of pure ancestry. A delinquent credit card forces them to accept accommodations in the hotel’s utility closet, an indignity that they will overcome by show’s end. Gerry, by the way, has two left feet . . . literally.

Max Berman is Cookie’s lecherous ex-lover, one of the hundreds in her past and one of several who intermittently appear in the film to graphically reminisce over past trysts, much to the chagrin of Gerry.

Harlan Pepper is a simple and honest North Carolina bait shop owner who, with his bloodhound Hubert, has a keen sense of the neurosis that surrounds the blueblood event. In addition to showing Hubert, Harlan enjoys ventriloquism and can recite from memory a long list of various nuts.

The dog who inspired Buck’s ham comment is owned by Hamilton and Meg Swan - two uptight, J. Crew-loving, therapist-dependent Yuppies whose constant bickering causes their prized Weimaraner to act out during competition, leading to her dismissal.

It’s to Guest’s credit as director that even though the characters are all ridiculous, most of them are quite likable (save Meg and Ham.) As is true in all of his films, “Best in Show” satirizes its target without being brutal or hateful.

To crib a line from Marty DiBergi, "Best in Show" captures the sights . . . the sounds . . . the smells of a blue ribbon dog show. But hey, enough of my yakkin'; whadda ya say? Go rent it today.

*Although her fate is still unknown, I would imagine that a dog named Champion Bohem C’est La Vie (aka: Vivi) probably lacks the survival skills necessary to make it in such an environment and assume that she has met her demise as the result of, if nothing else, pampering deprivation.

**On the fake, late night TV talk show, “Fernwood Tonight”, Willard played a low-rent Ed McMahon to Martin Mull’s low-rent Johnny Carson. In one of his greater lines, Willard once complimented a comedian who just came over to the couch after doing a set by saying, with all sincerity, that he “could barely keep from laughing.”

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