In Show (2000)
Warner Home Video DVD
by ANDY IHNATKO
The first time Christopher Guest was involved in a mockumentary, he got it Just Right: "This Is Spinal Tap" was absolutely perfect in every way, an instant classic and hysterically funny. With "Waiting For Guffman," (which he created and produced without his Tap-mates), he went way over the top but still made a funny flick.
"Best In Show" is, well...palatable. You can get it down OK. It isn't exactly a failure, but it's far closer to a failure than a comedic success. The filmmakers not only went too far over the top with the material but went and made this flick without an ounce of the discipline that makes any documentary or even any mockumentary work.
God knows, the problem isn't his choice of subject. Anyone with basic cable and time to kill on a Tuesday afternoon has, at one point in their lives, found themselves watching the Westminster Dog Show. The spectacle is as alien and compelling as the shots from the Mars Pathfinder. There are fussy-looking dogs being led around an Astroturf floor by fussy-looking handlers, culminating in the selection of a Best In Show: usually a dog that to your untrained eye looks no different from the sort of animal that you're constantly pulling out of your garbage cans and off of your female terrier. Yet there on the TV, lots of middle-aged men and women in formalwear are reacting to that dog the same way that 13-year-old girls react to the average Backstreet Boy on TRL.
(On second thought, maybe it's such a wonderfully bizarre topic in and of itself that it is a poor subject for a mockumentary. It begs to be watched with the sound muted. Surely any informed explanation of what's actually going on there in Madison Square Garden can't compare with what you imagine is happening.)
"Best In Show" takes place at the fictional Mayflower Dog Show and features the tales of four sets of dog handlers. Christopher Guest is a Southern bait-shop proprietor, handling an affable bloodhound. Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock are Meg and Hamilton Swan, the end-products of some sort of post-War genetic-engineering program funded by J. Crew and L.L. Bean to ensure that there'll always be a steady and enthusiastic market for things sold in Taupe, Merlot and Loden. Cookie and Gerry Fleck (SCTV alums Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy) own a terrier who's done well in regional shows back home in Florida. They're hoping that Winkie has what it takes to compete in the Big Time.
Jennifer Coolidge is incredible as Sheri Ann Ward Cabot, who, thanks to the startling use of cosmetic-grade housepaint and auto-body fillers, has successfully completed her transformation from Aspiring Gold-Digging Floozy to Respected Fixture In Old-Money Philadelphia Society. She's got a rather intense woman handling her two-time Best Of Show poodles for her, played by the equally-impressive Jane Lynch.
Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins are the true Best In Show. They're the funniest and most believable pair by far, portraying a middle-aged New York salon owner and his under-middle-age boy-toy who has God-given gifts for showing off dogs and provoking discomfort in uptight straights.
Oh, and Fred Willard is here, too, as a color commentator for the Mayflower Show's telecast. The world's population can be neatly separated into two groups: those who think Fred Willard is a comic genius, and those who see him on the screen and think only "Aw, Christ...this guy again." I respect those in the former group, I honestly do. But it's the latter organization to which I maintain active membership. It's worth the $12.95 a year to keep the newsletter ("Just What The Hell Is Supposed To Be Funny About This Guy?", published quarterly) arriving in my PO box. I hope to get to the bottom of this enigma at some point in my life.
If I seem to be spending a lot of time talking about the characters, it's because it's really all that "Best In Show" offers: a whole gaggle of Colorful Personalities. We don't see them develop into personalities (as they did in "Tap") or follow their adventures as a story develops and drives onward to a conclusion (which is what saved "Guffman.") It's all just a sequence of Wacky Scenes stitched one after the other and it's hard to perceive them as parts of a larger story.
Technically, we're following each of these handlers from their homes through the preparation process and then into the show and through the aftermath. But no single character or element of the story is ever allowed to stand out and take center stage. Our time is too neatly split between each personality and we're never allowed to really get inside their heads or watch the handlers interact with each other. Clearly there's a history between the gay couple and the poodle's handler, but God forbid that we should ever really find out what it is.
Nor is there any risk that this bizarre culture of competitive dog shows will ever be put to any good use. We're dropped into it with little or no explanations along the way. It seems natural to have some of these trainers explain to us what's going on and what they plan to do, but like almost anything else potentially interesting about "Best Of Show," it's avoided in favor of fitting in another Wacky Story.
"Best In Show" cuts and breaks around interesting situations as if it were one of the Steelers heading for the end zone. How about the climactic Best In Show judging? Evidently the filmmakers think that their characters have nothing interesting or funny to say about it, because the moment the actual competition begins the film's taken away from the handlers and mostly handed off to Fred Willard and his fellow TV commentator. Well, I suppose the filmmakers know their characters better than I do. In fact, I guarantee it.)
There isn't even a peremptory attempt to make characters believable. Most of the dialogue was improvised and it shows; too much of what's said betrays the desperation of the actors to say something that will make it into the final cut. This is a film in which every single character once had a drummer who died in a bizarre gardening accident and they'll tell you the complete story if you so much as ask them to pass the salt.
And there are whole scenes that just serve no purpose at all, such as the Flecks' detour during the long drive from their home in Florida to the show. Larry Miller is funny as one of Cookie's (many) former lovers and surprise, surprise, he's got a quirky job and some wacky stories to tell but the scene contributes absolutely nothing to the story. There are a whole hell of a lot of scenes like these and they kill any remaining chance that "Best In Show" has of building momentum.
I'm trying to figure out whether the camerawork and editing of the film seemed so bad because I was so unengaged by the story, or whether it's the other way around. Even the very first time I saw this film, I was distracted by the pink flashing neon sign hovering over the screen reading There is no way, no how, not one chance in Heaven or Hell that you are looking at a documentary film.
That's no good. "Tap" followed the rules of a "real" documentary, and observed its styistic limitations. "Guffman" wasn't quite so obsessive, but they tried their best. "Best In Show" doesn't seem to care, and that's a fatal flaw.
Look at the scene when the Flecks are checking into their hotel. First, a wide shot picks them up as they enter and approach the reservation counter. Cut to a two-shot from a second camera behind the counter (which is invisible in the master shot...but look, let's move on). Cut to a wide shot, then to a close-up of Ed Begley Junior as the hotel clerk. It all appears to be one single span of time without any edits.
There's a scene in "American Movie" (an actual documentary and about 6.3 times funnier than "Best In Show," incidentally) in which the film's subject, drunk and working on a turkey leg, rambles semi-coherently for the camera. If you switch to the DVD's commentary track at this point you'll hear the director recall the tension he felt as he was shooting. He only had one roll of film left a way-past-its-freshness-date tail end that a fellow filmmaker had donated and he was praying that God Almighty would make the guy somehow bring that rambling in for a landing before he completely ran out of film.
The commentary is filled with those stories, of having one single camera and one person running the sound and not a hell of a lot of money or other resources. That's real documentary filmmaking. So who was footing the bills for "Best In Show's" documentary crew? They couldn't have possibly shot that hotel scene with fewer than four cameras. Four cameras, four camera operators, and four film packs running, running, running.
And what about a scene in which two film crews had to have been waiting all day inside a locked utility room burning through film all the while on the off-chance that the hotel clerk might walk inside at some point during the day accompanied by one of the principals of their documentary?
There are "documentary" shots that could only have been made with the use of a film crane or a scaffold erected right on the dog show's center stage. An outdoor shot in which Catharine O'Hara begins crossing through a screen door in one take and then finishes in a second take of the same action.
There are process shots. There are dozens of camera operators swarming around every single area. And not just any camera operators: psychic camera operators. Yeah, the union makes you pay them time-and-a-half, but man, are they worth it: they always happen to have the camera pointed exactly where something's about to spontaneously happen.
"Best In Show" is presented as a documentary. It's therefore obligated to make a token effort to look like one.
OK, OK, I'm hearing what you're saying. But after hearing it I am stamping my foot and insisting that no, I am certainly not being a boring, nit-picky film geek. One of the little maxims that I shall embroider on a sofa-pillow one day is that "No flaw that you detect during the screening of a film is nit-picky; it's either (a) a valid criticism, or (b) a small problem that you spend the whole rest of your time in the theater dissecting because your brain's starved for something to do while it's stuck watching a crummy movie that isn't working any level." Which now that I look at it is a hell of a lot to embroider so maybe I'll just go to a craft show or something and hire someone to make that pillow for me instead.
In "Raiders Of The Lost Ark," there is an enormous telephone pole strapped to the bottom of a truck to make it spin out and flip over. In "Goldfinger" there is absolutely no need for the evil genius to explain every detail of his plan to a roomful of men whom he intends to and successfully does murder mere minutes later. And in a universe filled with spaceships that can flip themselves across hyperspace in the blink of an eye, of what bloody use is a battle station that has to grind its way through space at roughly the speed of a '77 Vega?
These are all glaringly obvious problems that you didn't even notice the first (or second, or third...) time, because all of these movies work. Movies are a form of mass-hypnosis. If a movie works, we're willing to believe whatever the filmmaker tells us is happening. If it doesn't, we realize that we're in a Ramada Inn lounge listening to some guy in a goatee and a beer-soaked red blazer as he tries to get us to pretend that we've suddenly got four thingies.
I don't want to be leaning forward on the sofa, trying to count the minimum number of cameras that had to be simultaneously running to have captured a particular scene in one documentary take (the record so far: 9). I'd rather be too involved in the story to wonder or even care.
"Best In Show" is a poor film because it's such a damnedly cheap film. It uses its mockumentary format as an excuse for slacking off. It apparently was made with the mindset that they didn't have to tell a conventionally tight, coherent and compelling story because hey, it's not a conventional fiction, it's a documentary. And they didn't have to follow the rules of a documentary because, hey, it's a conventional fiction.
As the filmed record of a bunch of friends yukking it up and ad-libbing on-camera, it's passable. As a film, though...bleahhh.
Features widescreen aspect ratio, scene selection; original trailer; English and French subtitles; English and French audio tracks; Dolby 2.0 and 5.1 surround; deleted scenes; director commentary. The disc keeps reminding you that the French is dubbed in Quebec, which I duly report here because if I omit the information I might wind up with a truckload of Quebeçois coming down on my head and who needs that?
Picture is clean but at times a little soft owing to the documentary-ish nature of the shooting.
Sound is clean and clear, and as one might expect, dialogue-heavy.
Director's Commentary features Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. You sort of get the impression that they're a married couple and we've dropped in on them just as they were about to get into an argument: there's certainly no hostility between the two but neither is there any rapport. There are also a good number of stretches of silence and a lot of rather plain comments.
Deleted Scenes are really great; actually, I was tempted to dump the film and the deleted scenes into iMovie and try to build an edit of this film that I would like more. Here you'll find at least a couple of relationships and backstories that would have made the story a lot more interesting.
Cast bios are simple, sub-IMDB stuff.
Warner Home Video Cat. #18951
Copyright ©2001 Andy Ihnatko. May not be redistributed without permission. Studio PR types wishing to send Andy tapes, promotional clothing, or high-end video gear in hopes of securing a positive review are advised that such efforts are futile, but they're free to try to determine how high Andy's price actually is. Mail any and all pelft to Box 279, Norwood, MA 02062. He already has a subwoofer for his home-theater but could probably use a good pair of casual slacks.