Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, June 3, 2001

Michael McKean, left, and John Michael Higgins star
as Stefan and Scott in "Best in Show."

Strange world of
dog shows mocked
in hilarious fashion

By Scott Vogel

Dog-lovers will hate it, dog-haters will love it, and everyone without strong opinions about our canine friends will likely form some while watching "Best in Show," Christopher Guest's hilarious exploration into dog show culture, which plays tonight and tomorrow at the Honolulu Academy Theatre.

Like "Waiting for Guffman," about a compulsively awful small-town theater company, Guest's latest film has attracted a cultlike following on the mainland, and it's not hard to see why. Both movies focus on ordinary people with outsize dreams, hailing from places like Blaine, Mo., and Fern City, Fla.; sensitive souls whose single-minded pursuit of the valueless provides, as one of Guest's characters might put it, continual testament to the power of human determination.

Those of us without do-or-die passions will likely find this other sort to be screamingly funny, and who can blame us? There are Cookie and Gerry Fleck (Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy), the proud owners of a Norwich terrier named Winky, who drive all the way from Fern City to Philadelphia for the ultra-prestigious Mayflower Dog Show, as well as the sightseeing. ("I want to see where they make the cream cheese," says Gerry.)

Other couples might have been defeated when they arrived at the hotel only to learn that their credit cards had been denied. The Flecks, however, are not to be deterred. The $34 in cash they brought with them may pay only for a cot in the hotel's utility closet, but never fear -- Winky will compete in the dog show.

Similarly driven are Hamilton and Meg Swan (Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey), whose dog is at the show despite suffering from trauma-induced depression. It seems that the Weimaraner, Beatrice, accidentally caught her owners in the act of making love, the latter having just purchased a Kama Sutra book and attempting a position known as "congress of the cow."

But the Flecks and the Swans are just the tip of the iceberg. Miss Agnes is the pride and joy of a well-heeled gay couple from Manhattan, her clothes-conscious owners packing seven kimonos for a mere 48-hour stay. A gold-digging Anna Nicole Smith type arrives in the company of her ancient, near-dead husband, a lesbian dog handler and her prize poodle, Rhapsody in White, a deliciously over-the-top canine whose name is almost an understatement. And Hubert is the loyal dog of Harlan Pepper, a North Carolina bait store owner who is studiously pursuing other interests (e.g., ventriloquism).

Employing a mockumentary format throughout, Guest follows the hopefuls from their humble origins to the dog show big time, the movie culminating in the nail-bitingly suspenseful competition itself, presided over by a bumptious TV celebrity (Fred Willard) who can't help but be reminded of his proctologist while watching the very thorough physical examinations given the contestants by the judges.

Along the way we meet characters from America's twisted underbelly leading lives devoid of connection: a couple whose only common passion is an affection for snow peas, another for whom sharing a J. Crew catalog qualifies as a bona fide hobby. In each case a dog has apparently (and temporarily) come to rescue them psychically. The poor animals are brushed, prodded, poked and posed, sometimes for calendars. (Miss Agnes stars in one of these, whose theme is classic Hollywood films. Hence we see her riding horses through a burning Atlanta, a la Vivien Leigh in "Gone With the Wind," mimicking Ingrid Bergman on the airport tarmac in "Casablanca" even doing a mean Susan St. James in a frozen moment from "McMillan and Wife.")

Silly, absurd and sometimes just stupid, "Best in Show" is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, the kind of film people always pretend to hate at cocktail parties, only to sneak into Blockbuster for it again and again. It's the rare spoilsport who won't find something amusing here. Even dog show devotees might find themselves chuckling from time to time.

"Best in Show"

When: 7:30 p.m. tonight and tomorrow
Where: Honolulu Academy of Arts Theatre, 900 S. Beretania St.
Cost: $5
Call: 532-8768

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