Christopher Guest has made a career out of the mockumentary in which his reliable cast of regulars lampoon a particular subculture or industry pretty close to the bone. By that standard, for those in the competitive dog show world, few movies are more uncomfortable to watch than Best in Show. For the rest of us, though, it’s a hilarious send-up of a world that seems deadly serious to those within it and fairly ridiculous to everyone else.
The story follows five contestants as they prepare themselves and their dogs for the upcoming all-breed Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show in Philadelphia. There is Gerry and Cookie Fleck with their Norwich terrier Winky, who suffer from pretty bad money problems, as well as the recurring embarrassment of Cookie’s extensive sexual history. Harlan Pepper is an amiable good old boy from North Carolina, who, when not showing his bloodhound Hubert, likes to recite the names of nuts, as well as dream of a career in ventriloquism. Scott Donlan and Stefan Venderhof are two of the queeniest queens who ever queened, and are easily the movie’s most stable, healthy couple. Their Shih Tzu, Miss Agnes, is clearly just one of the various loves of their life, and we can’t shake the feeling that maybe these guys enjoy showing Miss Agnes because it gives them a chance to throw shade at people. People like…Sherri Ann and Leslie Ward Cabot, the handlers of reigning champion poodle Rhapsody in White. Cabot is an unlikeable apex competitor and Sherri is an overdone bimbo in a fake marriage with some ancient tycoon. It’s pretty clear she and Cabot have the hots for each other, and Cabot’s edginess makes her the closest thing to the movie’s villain. Even more so than Meg and Hamilton Swan, two high-strung yuppies who live their entire lives out of WASPy mail order catalogs, Apple products and Starbucks. Their Weimaraner Beatrice is the only sane thing in the entire relationship as they project their abundant neuroses on the dog, each other and everybody around them. The story is simply us watching these folks make their way to the show and compete in it, and the longer we act as hidden observers of their lives and manifold foibles, the more we realize that competing in dog shows isn’t nearly so much about the dogs as their owners would like to think.
Best in Show feels like several movies all at once, as we jump between the various competitors, who don’t interact much with each other until they get to the dog show. That’s a good thing, as Best in Show is a kind of extended improv performance, operating off of a loose script and featuring 90 minutes edited from some 60 hours of footage shot. What makes it all work so well is that as kooky as these characters are, we are meant to laugh at them only to a point. The charm of Best in Show is how it gets us to eventually accept these weirdos on their own terms so by the time we finally get to the show, we really do want to see one of them win because we know how much it means to their owners. The only couple we don’t really care about is Rhapsody in White, because Cabot is kind of a jerk, but more importantly, because Sherri Ann is so vacant that she doesn’t really care about this, or anything. She’s having a hard enough time managing to breathe and blink at the same time.
A movie like this really is about its performances, and in Best in Show, there are three that especially stand out—which is saying something, given the uniformly excellent acting by a cast that somehow never feels like it’s competing with itself for camera time or laughs. The first is Guest’s own performance as a simple country boy showing his beloved hound and for whom this contest is just one more way for him to spend time with his four-legged buddy. His is a slow-burn comedy amid the much more frenetic weirdness of the other characters that sneaks up on you while you catch your breath from somebody else’s scene. He’s the guy who reminds us that yeah, everybody in this movie is strange, but for the most part, they love their dogs, and who can’t relate to that?
The second is Fred Willard as the dog show’s clueless color commentator, Buck Laughlin. Laughlin has clearly spent zero time trying to understand the rules or the culture of the competitive dog breeding world, and tops it off with a king-sized serving of inappropriate humor, to the endless frustration of his English counterpart Trevor Beckwith (played with subtle comedy by Jim Piddock). Watching Beckwith endure Laughlin’s endless inanity is humor unto itself, but on some level, we appreciate Laughlin’s take on all of this. He knows these are just dogs. We know they’re just dogs. Nobody else in the movie seems to.
But the third and greatest is Parker Posey’s inspired turn as Meg Swan, crystallized perfectly in the movie’s moment of truth, when Meg and Hamilton completely melt down after discovering that Beatrice’s favorite toy (read: Hamilton and Meg’s favorite toy) is missing. Clearly, Beatrice does not care what happened to the toy, but the Swan’s marriage seems to rest upon it. Watching Meg become increasingly unhinged in her last-second effort to find a replacement is not just the funniest part of a very funny movie, but it speaks to that time we all went a little more nuts than we should have over that thing that really wasn’t all that important. We all remember that moment. It still makes us feel embarrassed to think about it. Meg and Hamilton’s entire life is one of those moments, and the only one who seems to understand that is their dog. Who’s a good girl, Beatrice? That’s right. Beatrice is a good girl.