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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Best in Show
"I don't make movies that make fun of anything," Christopher Guest recently told The New York Times. Well, you could have fooled me. Spinal Tap, which Guest co-wrote and starred in (as the perfectly named Nigel Tufnel), left heavy-metal rock bands in tatters. Waiting for Guffman, which Guest directed, co-wrote and starred in (as the perfectly named Corky St. Clair), did the same for amateur theater groups. And now Best in Show, which Guest directed, co-wrote and stars in (as the perfectly named Harlan Pepper), does the same for the brushed, fluffed and powdered world of purebred dog shows. Those who think Guest is America's most affectionate satirist need to take another look at these casual little movies. He's nailing us to the wall.

Alas, leaving us in tatters doesn't always leave us in titters. Like its predecessors, Best in Show has its moments, but it also has its other moments, when things just don't seem to gel. That may be due to the way Guest puts the movies together, laying down a template and letting his actors fill in the blanks, and it's a small price to pay for the pleasure these mock-documentaries do provide: seeing ourselves in the funhouse mirror of Guest's amiable scorn. Best in Show doesn't reach the giddy heights of Waiting for Guffman; the jokes don't build, the story doesn't develop. But the movie's such a nice clean shot (at a target that's admittedly as wide as a barn) that you wind up admiring it anyway. You may not love it, but you respect it in the morning.

Actually, I loved several parts of it. The names alone are worth the price of admission. In addition to Guest's Harlan, there's: Cookie and Gerry Fleck (Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy), who've maxed out their credit cards to give their Norwich terrier a spot at the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show; Stefan Vanderhoof and Scott Donlon (Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins), gays who have a minor tiff over how many kimonos to pack for the 48-hour trip; Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), who rush their weimaraner to a psychoanalyst every time their own neurotic anxieties get the best of them; Christy Cummings and Sherri Ann Ward Cabot (Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge), who show what would happen if Anne Heche and Anna Nicole Smith ever got together. And last but not least, there are the viciously inbred beasts themselves, whose names I will leave for you to discover.

It's admirable of Guest not to exploit the mutts for cheap laughs, and not to have the owners go after each other like rabid rottweilers. But the movie leaves you wishing he'd pushed things harder than he has. His own character, who ain't nuthin' but a hound dog--he looks like a hound dog, he sounds like a hound dog, and he appears to think like a hound dog--is allowed to sail through the movie with his dignity intact, even during his wooden attempts at ventriloquism. I loved the gentle rises and falls of Harlan's Southern accent, which Guest subtly preserves when Harlan's speaking through the dummy. It's a terrific performance, but you have to wonder why Guest didn't go for the funny bone more often--or the jugular, for that matter.

Perhaps he got lost in the quest for authenticity. Best in Show does a magnificent job of capturing the absurdly genteel atmosphere of your average dog-show championship. (They're beauty pageants, basically, except the judges are allowed to pull back the jowls and examine the teeth and gums.) And Guest has now mastered the mockumentary form, with its nods to--and flights away from--cinema verité. Of all the cast members, Fred Willard, as some sports-announcer jock sent to do the Mayflower play-by-play, understands the balance between reality and surreality the best, shooting off lines that don't always make you laugh out loud but linger in your memory. Like the movie itself, he gets funnier and funnier the more you think about it.

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