Out of all of Christopher Guest’s mockmentary comedies, freewheeling exercises of improvised comedy with some of the best in the business, Best in Show clearly lives up to its title. This particular style of comedy is the one with the greatest degree of difficulty to execute. If you give too much rope to the performers, you can end up with self-indulgent exercises that isolate the audience by virtue of being performed to an audience of one. Or a desperation for every idea, no matter how good or bad, to get its due. But if you can get the formula right, then it’s a rich and rewarding experience. Best in Show gets it right.
What can make or break these things is a solid enough structure to keep everyone operating along a workable track, but also provide a structure that’s bendable enough to go where the laughs are. By introducing us to each of the pet owners individually and reminding us that they’ll all eventually meet-up at a dog competition, Best in Show’s structure of a perfect example of this phenomenon. We get to indulge the weirdest and kookiest of ideas that the actors have in the earliest scenes, and then we watch how those character quirks play out under a pressure cooker situation.
Granted, the hit/miss ratio is clearly stacked in favor of hit rather than miss, but there is a certain amount of fatigue and exhaustion that creeps in as it slides towards finish. It’s a forgivable sin, even the best scripted comedies have a hard time keeping up the laughs and pace, but it does become noticeable that the whiffs at bat are more prominent at the end than they are anywhere else. Still, by this point Best in Show has already given you the sight of Eugene Levy with (literally) two left feet, Catherine O’Hara walking with a rubbery knee, Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock using their dog to passive-aggressively battle each other in therapy sessions, and Guest sitting in a car rattling off every type of nut he can think of. That’s a bounty of laughs that any other film would be envious towards.
For all of its rapid-fire and cruel jokes, Best in Show still bows down to the triumph of the underdog sports film clichés. Based on the vanity and monstrous nature of so many characters, or their complete obliviousness as in Jennifer Coolidge’s trophy wife, just spot the characters with the biggest rooting interest and you’ll guess how it all ends. Thankfully, this is where Fred Willard’s completely crazed performance pops-up to not just liven things up, but provide a type of colorful commentary that scans as the active ramblings of someone incapable of escaping their own mind. When the plot gets a little routine, leave it to Guest to unleash a secret weapon to not only keep the breakneck pace of laughs going, but to elevate some of the material to kind of surreal genius.
It seems almost cruel to even say anything critical about Best in Show when it’s just so goddamn funny, and consistently so. Sure it’s got some structural problems, but the strengths swallow them up. And there’s litany of verbal fireworks, throwaway asides, visual gags, and physical comedy that just makes me tear-up from laughter no matter how many times I watch it. Really, that’s the best the blue ribbon for any comedy.