A mockumentary by the undisputed master of the genre, Christopher Guest (of This Is Spinal Tap fame), Best In Show follows five pairs of owners and handlers of dogs competing in the prestigious Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock play the highly-strung and short-tempered Meg and Hamilton Swan, owners of Weimaraner Beatrice. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara are Gerry and Cookie Fleck, owners of stout little Norwich Terrier Winky, and, in Cookie’s case, a highly promiscuous past. Jennifer Coolidge plays Sherri Ann, trophy wife of elderly Leslie Cabot and owner of two-time defending champion poodle, Rhapsody in White. Her handler is Christy, played by Jane Lynch, a woman entirely oblivious to her competing partner’s romantic feelings towards her. Shih Tzu Miss Agnes is owned by Scott Donlan and Stefan Vanderhoof, a gloriously camp couple portrayed by John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean, and the floppy bloodhound Hubert is owned and handled by backwoods nut enthusiast, fisherman and aspiring ventriloquist Harlan Pepper, played by writer and director Christopher Guest.
Everyone in this ensemble, as is true of anyone cast in a Christopher Guest feature, is an outstanding comic actor, each bringing their own personal flair to the character and producing inspired improvisational moments within scenes. Many of them are regular players in his works too, with Guest routinely eking out some of the finest comic performances of their careers, Best In Show included. Eugene Levy is outstanding as Gerry Fleck, an adorably affable chap with two left feet (for real) who tries his best not to let the seemingly never-ending stream of his wife’s ex-lovers that they bump into get to him too much. Posey and Hitchcock are stellar as the unbearably smug middle-class nutcases, the Swans. The absolute earnestness with which they conduct the therapy sessions for their dog is brilliant, and Hitchcock repeatedly screaming “GO GET BUSY BEE!” at Posey before the competition begins is a particularly memorable moment.
One man trumps the lot of them, however; an actor who has made something of a career out of brief but hugely memorable bit parts in comedy films: Fred Willard. One of the great “oh it’s that guy, I love that guy!” actors, Willard has popped up in Anchorman and Modern Family, and has the honour of being the first live-action performer in a Pixar film, playing the President of shady ultra-corporation Buy ‘n’ Large in WALL-E. He’s also a regular in Christopher Guest films, appearing in all of his mockumentaries, though it’s his turn as Buck Laughlin in Best In Show that is his finest outing.
Laughlin is the oblivious ‘colour’ commentator hosting the show alongside actual dog expert Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock), his only role being to say whatever idiotic thought comes into his head, much to the chagrin of Beckwith. Sometimes his statements are related to dogs, such as “It’s sad to think, when you look at how beautiful these dogs are, that in some countries these dogs are eaten”, or “Now tell me, which of these dogs would you want to have as your wide receiver on your football team?” Some are totally unrelated, like when he asks Beckwith to guess how much he could bench press, a comment that he at least acknowledges as being somewhat off-topic. Others are… sort of in the middle; we’ll just say he has an interesting idea of what an “obedience class” entails, and leave it at that.
What really sets him apart from the countless other dimwitted commentator characters, however, is that not only are Willard’s comments hilarious on their own, but the character of Buck Laughlin seems to be having so much fun. His childlike enjoyment of watching what, in his eyes, is a totally bizarre and magical series of events is hugely contagious; you find you’re laughing not just at his downright side-splitting lines, but at his gleefully smiling face and complete surprise and excitement when there’s an unexpected development in the dog show. As described above, the entire cast are each at the top of their game, but Willard just has the strangeness and memorability that causes his much smaller role to stick with you that little bit more.