As with many modern leisure pursuits, American dog clubs are no doubt full of decent, normal, hard-working folks who balance the demands of their lives with the pleasures of the hobby. None of those people appear in Christopher Guest's "Best in Show," a barkingly funny new "mockumentary" that does for those canine pageants what the helmer's 1996 "Waiting for Guffman" did for smalltown theatrics. Once again, Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy, working in concert with a large and familiar cast, walk a fine line between cruelty and affection, creating in essence a showcase for a series of improvisations on distinctly American types and their neuroses, strung together by a theme at once ripe for skewering and convenient for plotting. Seemingly aimed, as was "Guffman," at a hip demographic, the new pic will do similar (read: modest) business but could break out if aud's current interest in reality TV is piqued by the approach.

As with many modern leisure pursuits, American dog clubs are no doubt full of decent, normal, hard-working folks who balance the demands of their lives with the pleasures of the hobby. None of those people appear in Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show,” a barkingly funny new “mockumentary” that does for those canine pageants what the helmer’s 1996 “Waiting for Guffman” did for smalltown theatrics. Once again, Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy, working in concert with a large and familiar cast, walk a fine line between cruelty and affection, creating in essence a showcase for a series of improvisations on distinctly American types and their neuroses, strung together by a theme at once ripe for skewering and convenient for plotting. Seemingly aimed, as was “Guffman,” at a hip demographic, the new pic will do similar (read: modest) business but could break out if aud’s current interest in reality TV is piqued by the approach.

Reuniting much of the “Guffman” troupe, “Show” introduces its diverse cast of characters from around the United States through interviews and glimpses of their treks to Philadelphia for the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. In Illinois, tightly wrapped yuppie couple Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock) consult a doctor to find out if watching them have kinky sex has affected their Weimaraner, Beatrice.

Meanwhile, perky Fern City, Fla., couple Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara) prepare for the drive north with their Norwich Terrier, Winky. Pine Nut, N.C., fly-fishing shop owner Harlan Pepper (Guest) has a Bloodhound named Hubert he’s pretty proud of, while gay New York City couple Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) and Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean) just know one of their twin Shih-Tzus, Miss Agnes, is ready for stardom.

Competitors are rounded out by trashy blonde golddigger Sherri Ann Ward Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), who’s hired pro handler Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch) to walk the runway with Rhapsody in White, champion Standard Poodle.

Setbacks dog each camp. Gerry, so socially stiff he literally does have two left feet, slowly discovers that Cookie’s had more than her share of “boyfriends,” while a crisis involving a favorite stuffed toy sends Meg and Hamilton into an operatic spat. Scott and Stefan sail proudly into the hotel, while Sherri and Christy seem to have a lot going on between them they’re not talking about. Only nut-obsessed Harlan seems calm, maybe because he owns a Bloodhound.

Tension of event itself is upstaged by non-stop and often surreal string of one-liners and non sequiturs from Buck Laughlin (Fred Willard), a sports broadcaster brought in to call the event for TV who’s blissfully ignorant of the milieu (“Do you think hearts are in dog’s throats?” he asks his increasingly incredulous Brit partner, as they wait for the big moment).

Large featured cast includes Bob Balaban as show funder Dr. Theodore W. Millbank III, Ed Begley Jr. as a capable hotel manager, mute but mugging Patrick Cranshaw as Sherri’s very rich and very old husband, Don Lake as the sentimental pageant manager, and Larry Miller as one of Cookie’s many former boyfriends.

In conception, Guest and Levy seemed less interested in owners looking like their dogs and communicating with them in babytalk — although there’s a good bit of both — than with character quirks. Thus, fake docu framework offers each thesp situations in which improvisation allows them to peel back layers of their psyches and score points about people who just happen to lavish large amounts of time and money on this particular obsession.

Only cavil is a predictable rhythmic rut that the film settles into, as many segs begin with fairly normal “interviews” that soon spiral into bizarre verbal riffing.

Tech credits are fine, with much of the “Guffman” team reuniting for unique visual style somewhere between docu and fiction. Blowup from Super-16 is fine, further enhancing the film’s docu feel; pic was shot in L.A. and Vancouver.

Best in Show

U.S.

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Castle Rock Entertainment production. Produced by Karen Murphy. Executive producer, Gordon Mark. Directed by Christopher Guest. Screenplay, Guest, Eugene Levy.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor prints), Robert Schaefer; editor, Robert Leighton; music, Jeffery CJ Vanston; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; art director, Gary Myers; costume designer, Monique Prudhomme; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS Digital), Mark Weingarten; assistant director, Jack Hardy; casting, Stuart Aikins. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala), September 7, 2000. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Guest, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Patrick Cranshaw, Don Lake, Jim Piddick, Ed Begley Jr., Larry Miller.

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