Best in Show (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I knew this would be a funny niche-market comedy. It features some of the best comic sketch players and improv artists in the world, a virtual  all-star team from Natlamp, Second City, and SNL, so I knew it would have some great moments, as Christopher Guest's projects always do. 

I was impressed that it was more than that as well. I didn't know it would actually get me drawn into the storyline and that I'd catch myself wondering about the fates of the characters.

When you first start watching the film, you think that they have just created broadly satirical characters and placed them into a larger-than-life situation. It's about dog owners preparing for the big dog show of the year, and at first it's just plain silly parallels between the owners and their dogs, and we're laughing at some of the improvised comic riffs. Guest and Eugene Levy are credited as writers, but I'm sure that plenty of dialogue was made up as they went along, and some of it has the off-the-wall irrelevant brilliance that only improv can provide. 


none, either in the film or the deleted scenes
OK, funny enough, not a bad first half, but then they actually all arrived at the dog show and the film became magic, greater in some ways than Guest's Spinal Tap, because the characters jelled into people we could relate to, not comic stereotypes. Eugene Levy is great as the simple working shlub who gets a couple of minutes of accidental spotlight. We are actually pulling for him not to mess up, and we share his unexpected delight when he even provides some sincere inspiration in an otherwise somberly ritualistic and pompous exhibition of pooches.

Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins are great as a couple of rich gay guys who are as over-groomed as their dogs. They are witty, and sophisticated, and seem to have some condescension in their tone, but they really turn out to be just a couple of nice, funny guys enjoying their lives.

Guest himself is just wonderful as the Southern owner of a bait store who just loves his bloodhounds. I thought it was a real guy, even though I knew it was Guest, and even though he was saying some mighty dumb things.

But the highlight of the film was, without a doubt, the brilliant Fred Willard, who is the greatest improv comic in the world, even unmatched by Robin Williams, and has his character down to a science. "Hi, I'm, the incredibly clueless guy who will say anything that pops into his mind irrespective of how politically incorrect it is, and I'm totally heedless of how people react to my comments." He's the incredibly stupid guy you meet in a bar who thinks everything is part of a space alien or government conspiracy, and drones on for hours about how much he likes saltines, and has a theory about how the salt is placed on the cracker grain-by-grain, in a classic example of old workmanship. He's the guy who believes every word of Weekly World News.

Well, they took that character and made him the local TV announcer, co-host of the televised pageant. I think they pretty much told him to do whatever he wanted to do in his usual character, and every word he utters is sheer genius. 

Willard came up with some great stuff:

On bloodhounds - well, yes, he's a good lookin' dog, but I think he'd be so much cuter if he had one of those Sherlock Holmes hats and a pipe. I think the audience would really like that, especially if they could make some smoke come out of the pipe.

On the terrier group - you know these dogs are so adorable and so loveable, that's it's tragic to think that if we were in certain countries right now, we'd be eating them.

And I can't even recreate his comments about a female judge who checks all the doggie testicles. 

Willard just went on like that forever. It is amazing and so much fun to watch how his mind works.

Also brilliant, but far less broad, was his announcing partner, Jim Piddock. Jim has to play the typical British guy who is supposed to be the expert commentator, but knows all the owners and the pageant directors, and can therefore never say anything specific or even slightly favoring one over another. You and I could provide the same "expert" commentary. Everything he says is well-modulated, and sounds sensible, until you realize that he hasn't said anything at all. Every dog is a beautiful animal, every judge is highly respected, every breed is a popular breed well loved by the audience. In his own way, he was more full of it than Willard, but in a far subtler way. I also admired the way he kept a straight face when Willard wandered off on one of his un-PC riffs. The camera took in both of them when Willard talked, and you could see Jim start to smile, then regain control. It must be next to impossible to work with Willard. 

Those two guys were dynamite.

But what really makes the film special is that it actually draws you into the lives of the owners, and you like or dislike the characters. You think of them as people you know.

Guest is a genius. My colleague, Lawdog, pointed out to me that Guest is our Mark Twain, and that he is, but he's also a terrific actor, comic, writer, and impersonator. 30 years ago he was in Lemmings on the New York Stage, and his impersonations of James Taylor and Bob Dylan were uncanny and hilarious. 

A memory of him singing as James Taylor ....


 "farewell to New York - with your streets that flash like strobes

farewell to Carolina -  where I left my frontal lobes.

I can hear those contracts callin' , I'm too sensitive to stay

and my highway toes are thumbin' me away"


DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • full-length commentary by the co-writers, Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy

  • "K-9 Corner", featuring dogs and their owners

  • 17 deleted scenes

It's strange, but writing that makes me sad when I think of the guys from my generation who are lost to us already. How I wish John Candy could be in this film as a dog owner, or that Michael O'Donoghue ("Mr. Mike") could have contributed his mean-spirited genius, or that Doug Kenney (co-founder of the National Lampoon) could have created a brilliant allusion gallery. Sigh.

Be sure to watch the deleted scenes. There are 17 of them. My favorite was Guest showing the interviewer his beach ball collection, during which I never stopped laughing. They cut it because it really didn't belong in the film, but lord, was it funny. The DVD also includes full length commentary by co-writers Guest and Levy, but I didn't have time to listen to it, darn it.

The film isn't perfect. In fact, it has some slow moments, but it's as close to perfection as a mockumentary can get, except for the other ones Guest has done.

Now when are they going to get all the episodes of SCTV out in a DVD set?

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: slightly better than three stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Maltin 3/4, Apollo 86.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 8.0 
  • With their dollars ... grossed $18 million on a $6 million budget - comparable numbers to a good Woody Allen movie, probably targeting the same audience. It generated those numbers on only 500 screens, making it a really solid niche picture.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B-. A great mockumentary, on the same general level as This is Spinal Tap

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