I can’t recall the last time the vault celebrated a celebrity birthday. I ‘guest’ it’s a good thing Christopher Haden-Guest’s birthday is today. Yeah, that’s an absolutely terrible joke, and so not worthy of the talents of an actor, director, writer, producer, musician, composer and renown mockumentarian of Guest’s caliber.
Down in Florida, Cookie Fleck (Catherine O’Hara) and her husband Gerry (Eugene Levy) have packed up the van and headed to Philadelphia with their competition hopeful Winky. Meanwhile, life partners Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) and Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean) are preparing to leave Tribeca to escort Miss Agnes to victory. Harlan Pepper (Christopher Guest) is the owner of a tackle shop in my home state of North Carolina. He thinks his bloodhound, Hubert, will be the young pup to bring home the glory. Meg (Parker Posey) and Hamilton Swan (Michael Hitchcock) are obsessed over Beatrice’s stress level prior to the show…or they could be experiencing the lingering effects of Starbucks coffee. These four must all contend against Rhapsody in White, a two-time Best in Show winner. Rhapsody’s owner, Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), and trainer Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch) have no doubt that the poodle will win her third straight championship without much of a challenge.
When Best in Show premiered in 2000, I had never seen the much-touted hit film This Is Spinal Tap, so the comedic writing of Christopher Guest was unknown to me. I believe I scooped up Best in Show at the rental store due partly to Eugene Levy’s stellar performance as Jim’s dad in American Pie. I’d attribute the rest to Parker Posey after seeing her hilarious turn as Fiona in Josie and the Pussycats, which coincidentally released in theaters only a month prior to the DVD release of Best in Show. Thanks to the comedic chops of Levy and Posey, I have gone on to understand the greatness that is the Guest mockumentary.
Guest and Levy not only star in Best in Show, they are the creative minds behind the film’s premise. Following this broad cross-section of America as they prepare for competition is the perfect platform for hilarity. While some jokes are obvious, the more subtle comments and reactions by the characters are the comedic gold. For instance, watching good-natured Gerry silently seethe, biting his tongue betwixt his buck teeth whenever one of Cookie’s former lovers steps on his two left feet to drool over his wife, is a funny, and all too frequent, recurring joke. Watching Sherri Ann Cabot’s eyes dart side to side after she realizes she’s just given an inappropriate answer to the interviewer is just awesome. From Christy’s tepid confidence to Scott’s unabashed flamboyance, all the actors are so convincing in their roles you could easily mistake this for a real documentary.
What also helps the authenticity of Best in Show is the inclusion of professional show dogs and their handlers. Seeing Winky’s tiny legs scurry across the carpet alongside Cookie works because Winky was born to perform, just like the actors. If the Academy recognized stellar animal performances, the entire cast would have dominated the category with Beatrice the Weimaraner taking home the Oscar.
Best in Show excels because of its simplicity. Under his director’s cap, Guest keeps a simple hand-held perspective trained on all his characters. The setting is a stringent competition where everyone’s goal is simply to win. It’s far from a simple task for a cast and crew to create a film that appears effortless.
I’ve always felt comedians have a stronger grasp on the dramatic than they are given credit. Best in Show, like the other Guest projects, proves this to be true. In the 90s and 00s, reality-based television has dominated the airwaves. If you were to stumble across Best in Show one lazy Sunday afternoon and didn’t recognize the actors, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish it from the truth. And that’s why Best in Show deserves the blue ribbon.