Christopher Guest has to be the most successful mockumentarian to date. The competition is pretty thin, but the caliber at which Guest has been performing since way back with This is Spinal Tap sufficiently distances him from all comers. While he has written and directed at least three phenomenal entries to the genre, the endless number of bizarre, captivating, charming, endearing and thoroughly unique characters he’s devised easily earns him a spot at the top. To put it more plainly, Christopher Guest is to mockumentaries what Julia Child is to TV cooking. Or to put it even more plainly, Christopher Guest is Julia Child.
Best in Show centers around the upcoming Mayflower Dog Show, an event that remains dutifully under the radar of most. For those competitors afforded the honor of contention however, the Mayflower is their Superbowl. The individuals who comprise the focus of the documentary live in a world of coats and training schedules and dog breeds, and their tenacity is matched only by their eccentricity. The big day arrives and we’re thrust into the mayhem of this yearly tradition, the inane Buck Laughlin (Fred Willard) and his hilariously innocuous questions our only guide. The dogs are assessed and delegated, and in the end, the winner held high in the arms of his loving, buck-toothed, double left-footed owner. A day to remember.
The comedy here, just as in any film that allows so much improvisation, lives or dies by performance. Documentaries are a rote assembly that depends on the interview, and this is no less true when the whole thing is more or less scripted. No character is left unquestioned and all are given ample opportunity to expound on, well, whatever they feel like. Guest’s Harlan Pepper goes on about his childhood nut fixation, “Pistachio nut. Red pistachio nut. Natural, all natural white pistachio nut.“ Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge) expounds on the strength of her age discrepant marriage, “We love the outdoors, and talking and not talking. We could not talk or talk forever and still find things to not talk about.” Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) discuss the elements of their union to excess, “We met at Starbucks. Not at the same Starbucks but we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street from each other.” Clearly there’s no shortage of priceless one-liners. But the performance aspect of Best in Show goes deeper than that, showing a group of people who were born to act on their feet. There is simply no weak performance here, nor is there a standout. Everybody is that good. It’s easy to watch this film and not consider what their doing, because it looks so effortless and the comedy comes fast enough that you may not even have time to really think about it. Still, when you are able to completely soak in the scenes, the characters, the back and forth, you realize you’re watching some of the best improv you’ll ever see. And yes, they have the luxury of doing as many takes as they want, and yes, I’m sure you could catch Eugene Levy or Jane Lynch on a bad night and not think much of them at all, but here, doing their best at what it is they do best, well, it doesn’t get much better.