Monday, November 28, 2011

A Clever, Subtle Mockumentary Worth Viewing: Best In Show

The Good: Funny, Decent - if understated - acting, Great idea
The Bad: So tongue-in-cheek sometimes that it's slow, Some characters are painfully annoying
The Basics: More subtly than overtly funny, Best In Show makes fun of documentaries by creating a fake documentary on the mythical Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show.

Best In Show has been on my list for some time, especially since the success of it has spawned two follow-up mockumentaries by Christopher Guest (A Mighty Wind and, even more recently, For Your Consideration). It also seems like since Best In Show, Guest's actors from Best In Show like John Michael Higgins have been getting work in shows I like (Higgins, for example, appeared on Ally McBeal, Boston Legal and Arrested Development after this movie). So, when I was able to take in Best In Show today, it was something I was certainly looking forward to.

And it lived up to my expectations.

Best In Show is a mockumentary (a fake documentary) on a world-famous dog show. It follows five individuals or couples and their dog as they prepare for the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. The competitors range from the solitary fisherman Harlan Pepper and his bloodhound to the disturbed married couple, the Swans, whose aggressions for one another are taken out through their relationship to their dog. The film follows the competitors as they journey to Philadelphia and then compete at the event, each one hoping to get Best In Show.

Best In Show succeeds almost entirely on the basis of the acting and the humor as it is written and presented. That is to say that the characters are often nowhere near as impressive as the way they are portrayed. So, for example, Eugene Levy plays Gerry Fleck, who is essentially a working-class guy who has a wife who has been around . . . a lot. He's portrayed as a real loser and watching him struggling - like when his credit card is declined at the hotel and he and his wife end up bunking in the utility room - is heartwrenching. Levy, however, makes the viewer root for Gerry by presenting the moments when Gerry strikes out or rises to the occasion with realistic attachment. Levy gets into the role with a physical awkwardness that sells the viewer on this fish out of water.

Similarly, John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean could come off as just another stereotype of a gay couple, save that they add nuance to their performance that keeps it funny. It's hard to claim either is creating a homophobic portrayal with how over-the-top they are in their roles.

But the reason it is the performances and not the characters that win one over in Best In Show is that some of the performances are wonderful, but the characters are rotten. Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock play Meg and Hamilton Swan who are absolutely miserable. They spend almost every moment on screen yelling at one another, berating the other or just emanating some rot deep in their souls. They are uncomfortable to watch, such is the force of their characters. Posey and Hitchcock are completely convincing as Meg and Hamilton. If one were to see their portrayal one must acknowledge that they are either superior actors or truly damned individuals.

In case you've not read any reviews of Best In Show, the gem of the movie is Fred Willard. Willard plays a commentator at the show named Buck Laughlin and the moment he appears in the film, the movie goes from being subtly humorous and tongue-in-cheek to laugh-out-loud funny. Buck comments on the judges fondling the dogs' testicles, asks pointless questions of his co-commentator and makes random statements like boasting how much he could bench press as a youth. Willard's timing is genius and those patient enough to wait the movie out until his appearance are rewarded by how outrageous he is. The movie starts going in one direction and Willard presents a routine that runs parallel with the movie while feeling like it is outside it. He is what Jack Sparrow was rumored to be in Pirates Of The Caribbean.

That is not to say that the movie is not entertaining or not funny before Willard appears in it, but it certainly becomes more overtly funny after his arrival. Jim Piddock is an excellent straightman to Willard's over-the-top humor and there are moments it seems like Piddock is surprised by what Willard is saying.

Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy have written a genuinely funny movie with Best In Show. It is truly a shame that they were not acknowledged by major awards for that (though the writing did win Levy a Canadian Comedy Award for Pretty Funny Writing). Guest does a great job with the direction, making the viewer feel like they are inside the surreal world of dog shows. Never does he break the documentary mold and make us feel like we are watching anything other than a serious attempt to capture this weird slice of Americana.

Best In Show is not an overtly funny film for large portions of the film, which might set off those looking for a real good time. It's more subtle and it's a welcome ride, though the viewer must be ready for that. It's not likely to be enjoyed by children or those without patience. For those who want something that mocks the whole overly serious, PBS-intellectualism that mainstream culture seems to have such difficulty with, this is a great movie.

For other works with Jane Lynch, please visit my reviews of:
Glee - Season 2
Glee - Season 1
Shrek Forever After
Boston Legal


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission
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