Release Date: 2000
Length: 90 minutes
Director: Christopher Guest
Starring: Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara
Christopher Guest is very nearly unique in his production of a particular genre of film. His domination of the “mockumentary”, however, is due more to his skill as a writer and director than how infrequently this kind of movie gets made. He’s perhaps best known for the first in the loose series of movies he’s made, This Is Spinal Tap. A comedic “documentary” following the eponymous heavy metal band, it ironically, was the film over which he had less control since it was directed by Rob Reiner instead of Guest himself. As unquestionably funny and clever as Spinal Tap is, the genre of fictitious, documentary-style comedy achieved it’s zenith under Guest’s direction here in Best in Show and later in A Mighty Wind. While the latter delves again into the world of music (folk music, specifically), this movie takes on the realm of competitive dog shows.
Best in Show sports a talented ensemble cast, though without any A-list stars. You likely will not recognize co-writer, director, and star Guest because the man is a chameleon. You will remember him from his turn as the fiendish, six-fingered man from The Princess Bride: Count Rugen. About the only trait the two characters share, however, is Guest’s own soft, gentle tone of voice. Despite the similarity, the tone shifts from quiet menace as Rugen to friendly southern drawl here.
The plot of the film is simple and mundane; just as in many actual documentaries the drama and interest (and here, humor) comes from the characters and their quirks, foibles, and interactions. Five dogs and their owners and handlers travel to Philadelphia to compete in the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. In essence, it’s the national championship of dog shows. To describe these characters would be to rob you of a significant number of jokes that get made as they are introduced. Suffice it to say they are all heightened and exaggerated types. They’re unrealistic, to be sure, but (mostly) not fantastic.
And the characters are what make this movie so great. The actors are almost universally from improv backgrounds because the movie had no script in the conventional sense. Instead, each scene was shot with a direction to travel and a destination determined by the larger needs of the plot, but exactly how the actors arrived was improvised in each scene. The actors simply improvised by bouncing off each other and drawing on their knowledge of who the characters are and what motivates them.
Look, there’s not a lot more to say without beginning to spoil bits of the movie. If you are a fan of Spinal Tap or The Office or Parks and Recreation, then you really ought to give this a try.