Best In Show
Annoying and Tacky Beyond Belief
All in all, taking everything into consideration, weighing all the variables, and reviewing all the facts admitted into evidence, I can honestly say there is not a movie in recent memory that I have disliked more than Best in Show.
Best in Show is Christopher Guest’s acclaimed “mockumentary” spoof of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. I watched it after seeing parts of the real thing on cable, an experience that engendered a feeling of absolute incredulous moral outrage. After watching all the splendid collies and German shepherds and spaniels and beagles parade through Madison Square Garden, I was incensed to find that the winner of the coveted Best in Show prize was not a glossy-coated Irish setter or a brave Siberian husky but a transcendently annoying little squeak-toy of a bichon frise, a dog with the intelligence and usefulness of a throw pillow. I couldn’t have been more shocked if my mother’s vicious, yappy Shi-Tzu — a dog that barks at anything and everything, including falling leaves — had won. I spent the rest of the week questioning where our national values had gone. How could we ignore the essential canine goodness of a sturdy Labrador retriever or a loyal Dalmatian in favor of a spoiled lapdog that wouldn’t chase a Frisbee on a bet and had been subjected to more hairspray than a Miss Texas pageant winner? There was just something deeply, deeply wrong about the whole thing, and I went to see Best in Show hoping to see a comic expose of this national disgrace.
The main targets of Best in Show‘s satiric jabs are not the dog show judges; oddly enough, they’re treated with a great deal of respect. The institution of the dog show itself doesn’t even draw a lot of ironic commentary. (Unless you count Fred Willard’s inspired spoof of TV commentator Joe Garagiola, which is somewhat akin to hunting dairy cows with assault rifles equipped with laser scopes.) No, Best in Show focuses exclusively on the dog owners and dog handlers and their relationships to each other, and doesn’t spend a lot of time making fun of much else. In fact, Best in Show is written such that the dogs almost disappear into the background; this could have been a movie about stamp collectors, Civil War reenactors, Hell’s Angels, Bill Clinton apologists, or just anything, any kind of weird association or convention that you want to think about. Best in Show is about dogs the way that Casablanca was about the Moroccan exit-visa process.
Best in Show tracks five contestants to the prestigious Mayflower dog show; four of whom are in more or less dysfunctional relationships. (The fifth is Guest himself, playing a lonely North Carolinian bloodhound owner; it’s almost impossible to remember him as Count Rugen in The Princess Bride after watching this role.) Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock play a consumer-class Illinois couple; the movie begins and ends with them and their Weimaraner in canine psychotherapy. John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean play a pair of swishy New York hairdressers with two elaborately coiffed Shi-Tzus. (The horror, the horror.) Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Lynch play the owner and trainer of the favorite, a stuck-up standard poodle. And co-writer Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara play a painfully geeky Florida couple besotted with their Norwich terrier.
Best in Show takes enormous glee in pointing out all the various dysfunctionalities of all these relationships. Posey and Hitchcock are the most troubled, their anxieties are at a quick simmer that proceeds to a full rolling boil. Higgins and McKean seem to be the most stable, but they’re quietly bit(c)hy to each other; “Are you sure you need eight kimonos? We’ll only be there 48 hours.” Spoiled society wife Coolidge has an unstated crush on Lynch’s character that finds a surprising expression. Levy and O’Hara have the most difficult time of all, with Levy trying to deal with the fact that his wife seems to have slept with every man on the Eastern Seaboard.
All of this is done very well; Best in Show has a solid ensemble cast of comic character actors and a sharp script. And yet, I could not bring myself to love it.
The whole way through Best in Show, I couldn’t help thinking about a line from another movie; something that Helen Hunt said to Jack Nicholson’s obsessive-compulsive novelist in As Good as It Gets. “Do you have any control over how weird you allow yourself to get?” Practically every attempt at humor in Best in Show is based on the character’s inability to control their weirdnesses on camera; the various manifestations of their obsessions spill over uncontrollably and spontaneously.
Best in Show is cruel to its characters, which it actually needs to be, a little. Comedy is always cruel to someone, although that cruelty is usually leavened by grace or timing or surprise. Sometimes Best in Show has these elements; the way that Eugene Levy inquires about room service is priceless, and the discovery of Guest’s other hobby is a scream. But the overall tone of Best in Show is merciless and mean-spirited. It tries to wring every last possible drop of humor from the most pathetic aspects of the lives of its characters. And the characters are all oblivious to their quirks; they’re so self-obsessed and strange that they don’t realize they’ve lost control over how they appear to the audience. What should have been the funniest moments in the picture — Posey’s attempt to buy a certain type of dog toy in a pet store, to name one example — come off in a way that is shrill and forced and essentially unfunny. And things don’t get better as the movie goes along; the overlong epilogue contains the most painful moments of the movie.
The characters I liked best in Best in Show were the supporting characters, all of whom were suffering various indignities at the hands of the dog owners; Jim Piddock (Lethal Weapon 2, “But… you’re black!) as Willard’s Limey co-announcer, Don S. Davis (Twin Peaks) as one of the judges, Ed Begley, Jr. (St. Elsewhere) as the supremely patient hotel manager. They all looked as though they felt trapped in a situation they couldn’t control, and I sympathized with them like you couldn’t believe.
Best in Show is not a bad film from anyone’s perspective. If this is the kind of movie you like, you’ll undoubtedly think it’s brilliant. As for me, though, I found it annoying and tacky beyond belief. I would rather spend two hours trapped in an elevator with a yappy little bichon frise than ever watch Best in Show again, and you can put that down in your datebook and sign my name to it.