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[whitespace] 'Best in Show'
Guest Spot: In 'Best in Show,' Christopher Guest parodies the passions of dog breeders who live vicariously through their prize pooches.

It's a Dog's Life

Canines endure the sins of their handlers in Christopher Guest's 'Best in Show'

By Richard von Busack

CHRISTOPHER GUEST leads another of his too-infrequent cinematic parades of fools in Best in Show. Guest plays Harlan Pepper, a North Carolinian bringing his purebred bloodhound, Hubert, to a prestigious dog show. With a deep Southern drawl, sensual features, the shadow of a jowl and a thick mustache, Guest seems like he might be the man to play Vincent Price.

Bad performance is a constant theme in Guest's work. Pepper, inept on stage, has something in common with the would-be Broadway baby Corky St. Claire in Guest's Waiting for Guffman and the rock legend Nigel Tufnel, played by Guest in This Is Spinal Tap.

Best in Show, Guest's latest film, is a comedy about the hopefully fictional 125th Mayflower Dog Show in Philadelphia. Here, five different contestants use their dogs as temporary passports into show business. Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara play Gerry and Cookie Fleck, a couple hauling their Toto-oid Norwich Terrier ("Winky") to the show. The joke is that Cookie was once enormously promiscuous, and she keeps meeting some of the apparently hundreds of men in her life everywhere she goes.

The old boyfriends are no threat to the marriage. Cookie tells Gerry, vis-a-vis an ex-lover: "He was my past; you're my future." A future with a Eugene Levy character, imagine it--the nasal gosling honk in your ear every morning.

Scott (John Michael Higgins) and his boyfriend, Stefan (Michael McKean), are hairburners. Scott is low profile, quiet; Stefan is flamboyant, loud and proud, as gay as a treeful of parrots. Of all the couples in the film, they're the calmest, the most in love.

Quite the opposite are the hideous Swans--Hamilton and Meg (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock)--a savage caricature of grasping, infantile yuppies. Hamilton and Meg had a New Millennium meet-cute--they spotted each other through the windows of twin Starbucks, right across the street from one other.

Posey looks young and brutal with a short haircut, and she plays Meg at a level of fury that never quite crosses the border into shrillness. Still, even the hint at the Swans' sex is the stuff of a horror movie. They have a surrogate child, a Weimaraner named Beatrice. They get in the dog's face, Great Santini-style, yelling at it to mold it into a champion show dog.

Jennifer Coolidge plays a surgically and self-inflated bimbo named Sheri Ann Cabot, married to a 120-year-old millionaire. Her dog is a standard poodle clipped into the grisly, half-skinned poodle cut with pompoms, with the gray, mottled hide peekabooing through. The dog's name is Rhapsody in White.

Best of all is Fred Willard, who is a comedic specialist in Midwestern obtuseness: idiot presidents, bland mayors, small businessmen, square military officers. As Buck Laughlin, a TV reporter covering the show, Willard goes low and dirty for a change.

Laughlin is dead-eyed from too much TelePrompTer reading, and like Groucho Marx, he wisecracks for his own amusement. Laughlin has a stooge, too: he's partnered on camera with a nervous Briton, Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock), who takes the Mayflower Dog Show as the serious, important cultural event it probably would be in the U.K.

Of all the characters in Best in Show, the best-in-show Laughlin has the most tantalizing back story. Was he some sportscaster busted down to the dog-show beat? An ex-anchorman whose Percodan addiction caused him to compliment a weather-girl's boobs on the air? Laughlin must have had some long career in TV broadcasting, because he knows all the newsreader inanities. They spring from him without effort: the birdbrained natterings, the tired baseball metaphors, the gouts of instant poignancy. When a vicious dog is hauled out of the ring, he intones, "She's being led off in disgrace, but she's still a champion."

As usual, Guest presents these deluded souls with affection. When Pepper tries to teach the bloodhound to talk through ventriloquism, Hubert shows too much dignity to register the nuisance, and Laughlin tops the inanity: "Maybe that bloodhound ought to have a Sherlock Holmes hat and a pipe."

Guest contrasts the wisdom of dogs, all natural performers, with the misguided people who try to force their pets' elegant natural dogness into a human-pleasing spectacle. You have to envy Guest's characters--so painfully aware of the little mistakes in their acts and yet so oblivious to the totality of their acts' staggeringly uncanny badness. Free from self-awareness, Guest's people seem like lucky dogs.

Best in Show (PG-13; 90 min.), directed by Christopher Guest, written by Guest and Eugene Levy, photographed by Roberto Schaefer and starring Guest, Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard and Parker Posey, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the September 27-October 4, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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