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BEST IN SHOW

2000, dir. Christopher Guest
90 min. Rated PG-13.
Starring: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara.

Review by Noel Wood

Well, here I go again. Over the weekend I got a chance to see Christopher Guest's new film A MIGHTY WIND, and having also recently rewatched his two previous "mockumentaries", I decided to go ahead and recap them before reviewing the new one. Yesterday I posted my review of WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, Guest's comedic take on a small town's community theater. Here I'll cover BEST IN SHOW, where the subject du jour is yet another pop culture phenomenon: the dog show.

Just as an aside before I get into the movie, I have an interesting tale to tell. Last night, I went to see IDENTITY with some friends, which I hope to have a review of soon. However, it won't be my review. It will indeed mark the return of the illustious J.R. Gast, founder of The American Undershirt as well as the author of a previous review here for CHICAGO. But that's not even the point here. The real interesting part came at around 11:30, when I arrived home. I logged in to check my mail and web site stats, and lo and behold, there was an ad on the page that struck my eye.

You see, recently, when I made the decision to sell ads on this site, it was my understanding that as time went on, they would reflect the content of my page more and more, based on who clicks what and all that other really intricate computer jive that flies way above my head. At first, it seemed all my ads were those seizure-inducing flashing "WINNER" banners and ones from Classmates and some weird ad for a waterfall screensaver. But as time went on, I noticed the content was starting to shift a bit more my way. New York Film Academy, Overstock.com's movie section, and other ads that actually related to my site's content. Much more appealing than these god-awful strobe banners. But then, last night, I found the most peculiar one yet: An ad for the IFC films release MANIC. Why is this so interesting, you ask? Well, take a look at the "full cast and crew" credits of said film from the last link. Our own Chad J. Shonk, cofounder of Movie Criticism for the Retarded, is credited as second second assistant director. Now, this is the first single-movie ad that has been randomly featured on my site. And it just so happens to be one of the screen credits that Chad has under his belt. I don't know what the probability of that happening is, but it's pretty goddamn cool.

Or, at least, I think so.

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. This has nothing at all to do with one of the funniest movies that I've ever seen, BEST IN SHOW. And I say that with a straight face. I can honestly say that this movie is the only one I've ever seen where I literally was close to rolling on the floor laughing. Really. And it's all because of one thing, or, at least, one person: Fred Willard.

BEST IN SHOw followed its cousin GUFFMAN in the spring of 2000, and while there are tons of similarities, the movies are in fact quite different. Of course, both are shot in the style that Guest has perfected, mixing the feel of a documentary with that of a standard storied comedy. You'll notice the basic similairites as well: The titles are identical, many of the same actors are present, and a similair approach is used with subtle humor. The differences, as we'll see, come later.

The movie follows several dog owners, who are on their way to the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show in Philadelphia. The first couple we meet, a pair of high-strung yuppies who frequent Starbucks and order from J.Crew (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), spend more time fighting than tending to their Weimaraner. Next we meet Gerry (Eugene Levy) and Cookie (Catherine O'Hara) Fleck, who have happy with their Norwich Terrier and in their marriage, except that Cookie keeps running into old lovers. Next is Leslie and Sherri Ann, a wealthy nonagenarian and his trophy wife, who have entered their previous champion Standard Poodle into the competition. Next up is Harlan Pepper (Guest), a good ol' boy from North Carolina who, when not enjoying his hobby of ventriloquism, is raising his young Bloodhound. Finally, there's a flamboyant gay couple (Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins) who prize their well-groomed Shih tzus.

Half the fun is getting there, and the movie is successful in creating these characters from the getgo. There are scenes from the road, "interviews" from home, and other bits that get us to know the people we're going to evenually see showing their pups off to the world. The chemistry of this ensemble cast really starts to shine when they all converge for a pre-show cocktail party. Part of what sets this movie apart from GUFFMAN is the character development. While in that film, we got a brief look at the townsfolk before they were shoved together for the play, here we get a chance to really know them. And even with all of their exaggerated personas and situational goofs, these people seem real. There's some you want to love and some you want to hate, but these are people you might know.

But the real thing that sets this movie apart, and makes it so different from GUFFMAN, occurs when the show begins, and Fred Willard is given the microphone. Willard appears as Buck Laughlin, quite possibly the last person you'd ever want running commentary for your special event. Teamed up with Trevor Beckwith, a prim Englishman who is much more knowledgeable on the subject, Buck starts a string of one-liners in rapid-fire succession that will have your sides splitting. While in GUFFMAN, the humor is almost purely subtle and cerebral, this particular sequence takes blunt jokes and bludgeons you with them. And in this capacity, it works. Willard has a strong comedic presence and timing that is uncanny, and he's used to perfection here.

A lot of people will disagree with me on this one, but I see this as a vast improvement over GUFFMAN. Sure, that film was great, and really a bold direction at the time. While this one suffers from being second in line and therefore seeming not as original, It has a lot more going for it once you get past the basics. Character development, pacing, and overall cohesiveness put this film in a class all its own.

OF course, there's still A MIGHTY WIND to come, and I'll get there next.

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