Best In Show (2000)

Directed by Christopher Guest

“He went for her like she’s made outta ham!”

The Disc

Another throwback to the early days of DVD, with a simple cardboard case – you know the type, with the clicky black plastic fastener?

Extras include a commentary by Guest and co-writer/co-star Eugene Levy, 30 minutes of extra footage (for the most part, wisely excised), and a trailer.

Oh, and because it’s 2000, interactive menus and scene access are still considered special features!

Why Did I Get This?

I love This Is Spinal Tap because, well, who doesn’t? It’s a perfectly-formed creation, filled with heart, memorable and (relatively), believable characters and a love of music that also shone in Guest’s A Mighty Wind.

If I’m honest, I had probably only seen Tap for the first time when Best In Show came out, so was probably looking for more of the same. I know Rob Reiner directed the earlier movie, but Guest and McKean were a big part of it, so it didn’t seem too much of a stretch. Likewise, Levy and Jennifer Coolidge were both hot off the back of the American Pie franchise, so I might even have been more familiar with them at the time (for shame!).

However it came about, I remember watching this with my housemate at the time, and A Mighty Wind in the video shop I worked at while studying at uni, but probably never since.

Here we go then, fingers crossed…

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review may feature spoilers for the movie, so if you haven’t seen it and want to go in completely cold, skip ahead to the next heading!

Best In Show is the story of five competitors (and their dogs), who are all desperate to win the blue ribbon at the prestigious Mayflower Dog Show in Philadelphia.

Told in a documentary style and without narration in a tight 87 minutes, the film follows the competitors from their homes through the Best In Class and Best In Show rounds, with a short coda revealing how each moved on after the competition.

Tight-laced upper-class young professionals Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), open the film by talking to a psychologist about their difficulties at home and how their relationship with Beatrice has been strained since she walked in on them having sex. It’s a classic pull-back and reveal gag, as we discover Beatrice is their Weimaraner, and while it’s not a particularly original or new setup, it still gets a laugh.

Gerry and Cookie Fleck (co-writer of the film Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara), adore their Norwich Terrier Winky so much they perform songs about him to their friends, and have a lot going on – they’ve accidentally missed payments on their credit card, Cookie appears to have banged every other guy they meet, and Gerry has two left feet. Literally, it’s a running gag introduced in their opening scene.

Christopher Guest plays Harlan Pepper, a fishing tackle shop owner with a Southern drawl and a bloodhound named Hubert. Despite having a penchant for ventriloquism and simplistic way of speaking, Guest’s character feels like the most well-rounded of the bunch. He’s still a bit of a caricature, but dialled down much further than some of the others.

Stefan Vanderhoof and his partner Scott Donlan (Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins), for example, occasionally veer into broad caricature territory. Despite McKean being Guest’s Spinal Tap band mate, it’s Higgins who is permanently dialled up to 11, packing multiple kimonos for two nights in Philadelphia, terrifying a local butcher with meat jokes, and loud, camp outbursts aplenty. However, despite the occasional OTT aspect, their relationship feels more real than, say, that of the Swans. There’s discussion of McKean’s children, a fondness between the two of them in both the quiet and the louder moments, and it feels like they’ve really got a history beyond showing their Shih Tzu.

Lastly, Jennifer Coolidge plays Sherri Ann Cabot – much younger wife of Patrick Cranshaw’s Leslie Ward Cabot, and likely, for want of a better term, a bit of a gold digger. I’m sure Cranshaw has a long and respected career behind him and was acting his socks off in the few minutes we have him on screen, but he looks like a dessicated Mark Twain.

Sherri Ann has hired Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch) professional trainer and dog handler to show her poodle Butch – also known as Rhapsody In White – and despite an attempted surprise reveal late in the film, it’s pretty clear from the off these two are a couple.

And that’s our cast really, with honourable mentions for Bob Balaban in a pretty thankless role as the Mayflower Kennel Club President and Ed Begley Jr as the manager of the Taft Hotel in Philadelphia who takes pity on the Flecks when their card is declined and puts them up in a utility room.

Although the film was written by Guest and Levy, the cast were allowed to improvise around the story. Apparently, something like 60 hours of footage were shot and with the final product coming in at under 90 minutes and the extra footage on the disc clocking in at about 30 minutes, you’ve got to wonder what happened to all the rest? I assume the cameras were left rolling once the cast started a ‘bit’, and kept rolling as it was given time to develop into the piece that made the final cut. It’s either that or the other 58 hours were all corpsing (meaning they were too funny), or boring (meaning they weren’t). Whatever the reason, it resulted in a tight, fun film.

The improv is occasionally noticeable, though it doesn’t stand out too badly thanks to the documentary style – it works best when on-screen couples are just chatting or sharing a story to camera. There’s a running joke about Sherri Ann wanting to give Christy a makeover before she shows the dog, and they both underplay it nicely. Likewise, the back and forth between Stefan and Scott – the latter tossing innuendo or semi-bitchy comments into the former’s monologues – make you believe in their relationship.

Where it doesn’t work so well is where one of the performers seems to be going for a big laugh – either from the audience, or trying to get their fellow cast members to crack up. For me, while the Gerry and Cookie storyline was funny (he had no idea she’d slept around so much before marrying him and felt insecure and emasculated), O’Hara played it just that little bit too big to feel natural.

At a ‘Good Luck’ party before they leave Florida, for example, Gerry complains that they’re driving 140 miles out of their way to meet one of Cookie’s old flames, she suddenly says, loudly: “How many years ago did he poke me?” It feels blunter than the character had been to that point, and it doesn’t stop the party outright. Sure, it provides an awkward beat, but I dunno, it just felt like throwing out a line to try to crack up the team.

Worth mentioning though, their detour to meet her old flame (played by Larry Miller), is very funny, and leads to choice dialogue including…

GERRY: “I forgot to compliment you on your luscious melon breasts.”

… and…

MAX: “I’ll punch you in the eye until it turns to jelly.”

Not exactly quotes you’ll use in everyday life (hopefully), but in context, they’re very funny.

Another improv which is very clearly just that sees Guest telling the camera how he used to be able to name every single kind of nut as a child, which drove his mother mad. It’s a brief enough story (it has to be, the whole film last 87 minutes), but includes a long list of nuts with a grin just about visible under Guest’s moustache.

This is a Christopher Guest who couldn’t be further from the buttoned-down Army physician he played in A Few Good Men, and he’s clearly having fun with the role and with his friends.

That’s noteworthy too – I’ve written before about how sometimes when a cast are good friends off-screen, the resulting movie isn’t as much fun as they’ve clearly had. In this, the cast are clearly having a great time, and to some extent, that’s infection.

But there’s one big name I haven’t mentioned so far, who’s definitely having the best time of all…

Once the dog show starts, we’re treated to the incomparable Fred Willard as over-the-top commentator Buck Laughlin, bouncing terrible, crazy ideas and comments off his fellow commentator and canine expert Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock, playing the endlessly patient, stiff-upper-lip Brit brilliantly).

Willard almost feels like he’s been drafted in from a different film – his mind is a pinball machine and he rambles from thought to thought like a drunk stumbling between lampposts. It’s funny, it’s cringeworthy, and after four years of seeing the President of the United States pretending to know everything and ramble incoherently on the world stage, it’s eerily familiar to hear his voice and style from Willard. It’s probably not the first time it’s been done, but it’s also a gag that’s been taken up since, both in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, and – if memory serves – the Pitch Perfect series.

By the time the Best In Show category comes round, the Swans have behaved so awfully to their dog it has attacked a judge and been disqualified, Cummings and Cabot have been outed on live television, and Cookie has taken a terrible pratfall meaning Gerry has to take his two left feet into the arena and “show Winky”.

The judging for the actual Best In Show is a surprisingly tense affair too, and I found myself genuinely on edge as the judge considered his announcement. Then I realised the judge was played by Don S. Davis, and found myself desperate to remember what I’d seen him in (pretty sure it was Twin Peaks, but he had a helluva career).

Once the top dog is announced, we get a Six Months Later title card, and find out how each of the contestants have moved on – the Flecks are recording an album of songs about terriers, Cummings and Cabot are officially a couple of producing a magazine called American Bitch, Scott and Stefan are happy and taking pictures of Shih Tzus inspired by 1930s movies, Harlan’s performing ventriloquism shows and the Swans have ditched their buttoned-down look, and become much happier after deciding the dog was the problem and traded it in for a smaller breed.

And that’s it, roll credits.

Thoughts On The Film

Man, I really wanted to love this one. I love Spinal Tap, and I remember loving this the first time around too, but watching it back for the first time in probably 15 years or more, it just feels like a lesser film.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have genuine laughs, because it does. It’s worth paying to see it for Willard’s character alone, but there’s so much more to it than him – it’s got heart, too.

Looking at how it’s held up in popular culture, the reviews are still really strong and positive so it might just be me.

Maybe it suffers in my mind because I’m comparing to to Tap, and that’s probably unfair. A Mighty Wind would likely suffer a similar fate, though I remember enjoying that a lot at the time but haven’t revisited since 2003.

Posey and Hitchcock’s characters were too frantic and screechy for me, and like all improvised comedy, I felt some of it didn’t quite land as well as it could’ve.

However, when Best In Show worked for me, it was brilliant, and the cast are all game and giving it their all.

Verdict

I’m glad to have seen it again, but found it good rather than great this time around.

At 87 minutes, it’s a fine way to spend time with some gentle laughs, and provided you’re not looking for an 11 out of 10, you’re in for a decent time.

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