People really love their pets. As someone who doesn’t own a pet, even I know that. In a lot of cases, people love their pets more than they love some of their own relatives, perhaps even immediate family. Hell, I know people who would probably take a bullet for their pet before they took a bullet for their spouse or partner. And that’s the foundation that writer/director Christopher Guest operates from during “Best in Show,” a fun farce that recently hit Blu-ray disc from Warner Bros.
You might remember “Best in Show” from 2000, when it made a splash in theaters and caught audiences pleasantly off guard because most of its dialogue was improvised and off the cuff. At a surface level, it puts forth some fairly extreme personalities and their obsession with their dogs. If you dig slightly deeper, however, there exists some less than subtle commentary on our occasionally flawed priorities as individuals and a society. At the end of the day, no matter how you slice it, the humor is what most who engaged with this title will carry with them. Guest deserves primary credit here, as he gave his principle performers the freedom to operate without significant structure or guidelines (he also stars in the film), entrusting they wouldn’t let him or viewers down. They didn’t.
Midway through the film’s 90-minute run time, I found myself wondering whether or not the people are the film’s stars. I mean, it is a movie about a dog show, after all, and the dogs “Best in Show” brings forward are surprisingly talented, well-trained and dynamic to watch. One can’t help but wonder what vetting process was implemented to identify which four legged pups were selected, and whether or not the characters Guest helped to craft were formulated around the dogs, or vice versa. As good as the players managed to be, I can’t help but think that the dogs are really the film’s stars.
“Best in Show” is presented as a documentary that chronicles five different sets of dog owners who are feverishly preparing their pets (and themselves) for the mildly prestigious Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show, which takes place in none other than the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. It’s fun watching these extreme personalities be executed with relative ease, and as “Best in Show” builds to its climax, the owners interact together on more than one occasion to spar over the trivial, the serious and the bizarre.
Guest plays Harlan Pepper, a bloodhound owner who comes from a long line of bloodhound breeders. Harlan’s a mellow fellow, who would almost rather entertain his peers with his ventriloquist dummy than anything else. He’s tame, though, especially if you compare him to Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), who own a weimaraner hunting dog named Beatrice. These two are at their best when screaming at each other, which is spread out, of course, between couples therapy and screaming at others who threaten Beatrice’s well-being.
I can’t forget to mention over the top Sherri Ann (Jennifer Coolidge) and Leslie Ward Cabot (Patrick Cranshaw), who have won this very show twice before and are separated in age by a good 40 years. She’s out for his wallet, and he’s out to keep breathing. They hire a trainer, Christy (Jane Lynch), who grabs the reigns and with poodle Rhapsody and indirectly with Sherri Ann, too. If you add in Cookie and Gerry Fleck (Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy), their inability to avoid social awkwardness, a slew of bizarre encounters with former sex partners Cookie’s had, as well Winky, their terrier, you’ve got a complete cast. Well, sort of. There are the gay men, Scott and Stefan (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean), plus Miss Agnes (she’s their shih tzu). And a downright ridiculous color commentator (Fred Willard) who could probably make drying paint funny to check-out. And a host for the show. And judges. And a hotel operator.
There’s a LOT happening here, and not a lot of screen time, which makes “Best in Show” all the better. Guest is able to successfully weave several different intentionally funny and silly journeys together in a culminating dog show that is about as goofy as those who seem hell bent on winning it. Willard’s commentary is what drives the film from the point where the show itself begins, and he’s everything from downright witty to obscene to strange as we watch these colorful ladies and gentlemen vie for a title only one can win.
I think what I most appreciated was the emphasis on coming full circle. We don’t just see these over the top people fight tooth and nail to make it, but instead get to see them get their shot and are treated to an epilogue of sorts that helps to resolve our curiosities about what impact this perhaps miniscule (in the grand scheme of things) event has on their psyches. It’s all in good fun, and the film helps to make some pokes at larger institutions, of course. But at the same time, Guest’s ability to indirectly comment on excess and over abundance, as well as our occasionally skewed personal, professional and life priorities, doesn’t go unnoticed. It also is far from the film’s main message, which, as stated earlier, is probably why “Best in Show” received high marks during its initial release and maintains them in the present.
The dogs “Best in Show” works into its mantra aren’t easy to forget, and neither are the people who seem more invested in their pets than they are in themselves. It’s a fun film that works because it was creatively envisioned, and if you suspend your disbelief long enough, you’ll be entertained for almost as long as you’ll be chuckling.
“Best in Show” probably won’t win for best looking Blu-ray. The video transfer is surely cleaner than standard definition, but I had higher expectations for this film’s 1080p High Definition 1.85:1 look. Coloration isn’t as polished as other catalog titles I’ve received from Warner Bros., save for the scenes during the dog show itself, where brights pop with the greatest of ease. Slightly too much grain is also noticeable, and the cinematography isn’t anything overly special. The scenes where each character is being mock interviewed seem to lack more so than others.
The film’s sound is controlled and appropriate. I entered this viewing experience with a mild fear that I’d be able to pick up more barking and food consumption from the dogs than I would dialogue from the humans, but my anxiety was quickly extinguished with this mostly clean and clear English 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track. We can detect all the sounds described above, but they don’t trounce one another, and you won’t need to jack up the volume to get the jokes loudly and sharply. There are plenty of them, too, and Willard’s color commentary is especially detectable. Additional audio tracks are in Spanish (both Castillian 5.1 and Latin 2.0), while subtitles in English, French and Spanish can be utilized.
Guest offers an audio commentary along with co-writer Eugene Levy, and a few deleted scenes are provided alongside the film’s theatrical trailer. It’s a more or less standard, bare bones offering.
A Final Word:
I enjoyed “Best in Show,” but probably not as much as a dog owner would. It’s comical due to the excess it leans on to operate, and sharp due to the carefully crafted approach Guest took in formulating characters and actors to play them. I appreciated its ability to not test my patience by doing its job in a mere 90-minutes. Now if only real dog shows could wrap up in that time frame.