Best in Show is a masterpiece of editing. Guest’s direction is spectacular as well—the way he creates space for the performances—but it’s all about how Guest and editor Robert Leighton construct the narrative. Even in the second half, when Best in Show becomes a singular tour de force of buffoonery from Fred Willard, it’s all about the editing.
The film opens with an introduction to its cast–Show is a mockumentary about a fictional dog show, specifically the contestants (well, their humans) in the “Best in Show” category. For the first act, Show is going to go through a variety of comedic tones, ranging from the very acerbic (super-yuppies Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) to the nearly absurdist (Floridians Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, with the Florida doing a lot of the lifting). Posey and Hitchcock are trying to get their Weimaraner (Sporting Group) mentally prepared for the big show (the dog’s been in a rut since walking in on them in the bedroom apparently), while O’Hara and Levy’s biggest problem is O’Hara running into one of her numerous ex-boyfriends, which causes Levy intense jealousy. Their dog, a Norwich (Terrier Group), probably has the least to do in the film.
Then there’s John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean, who have a Shih Tzu (Toy Group). They don’t have much melodrama in their story—I misremembered them at one point running into McKean’s ex-wife (who he left for Higgins), but no—and it’s mostly just Higgins being hilarious and McKean providing support for him. The dog’s adorable. They will be the most aware of the competition aspect of the prizes, with the previous winner their clear nemesis. The previous winner is a Standard Poodle (Non-Sporting Group), owned by trophy wife Jennifer Coolidge. Coolidge doesn’t do the training, instead having handler Jane Lynch do it. Since Coolidge and Lynch won the last two years, the film follows them the most of any of the groups once it’s dog show time.
Finally, there’s director Guest, who’s got the Bloodhound (Hound Group).
The first half of the film is the lead-up to the dog show, tracking the eventual contestants as they prepare and travel to the show. It’s a showcase for each of the actors, with Guest careful not to showoff his own performance too much. Technically, Guest playing a Southerner who loves his dog is probably the best technical performance. It’s seamless and sincere; Show’s very careful in how it joshes dog ownership. With Guest in particular, then probably Higgins and McKean, it does convey the emotional regard the owners have for the animals—no one’s going to be worse than Posey and Hitchcock (the scenes with Hitchcock berating the dog are simultaneously hilarious and horrifying to the point you hope the dog was deaf). Show’s very good at how it jokes about its characters and their eccentricities.
Other first half interviewees include Bob Balaban as the dog show president, Don Lake as the show floor supervisor, and Ed Begley Jr. as the hotel manager. Begley gets some of the best material in the film—as the only person outside the dog show world who isn’t an ex perving on O’Hara in front of Levy, he’s got the angle closest to—presumably—the viewer (not sure how Show plays to dog show contestants, though outside the the interviewees, everyone seems “normal”). But Begley gets to intersect with various characters; otherwise it’s chance encounters.
Once they get to the show proper, the film brings in Willard as one of the announcers—Jim Piddock is his hilariously suffering straight man—and Best in Show becomes the “Fred Willard Show,” in the best possible way. Willard’s profoundly, intentionally unaware host knows less about the dog show than anyone who’s watched the first half of the film; all the procedure and absurdity focuses on Willard and reflects out, with Willard’s ignorance giving the viewer a chance to know more about dog shows than the announcer. It’s a relatively easy idea but Willard’s so spectacular it becomes singular.
All of the performances are good, with O’Hara and Levy the standout couple—at one point they both have to do physical comedy and are superb—with Guest, Higgins, and Lynch all fantastic solo performances. Coolidge and Hitchcock are on the next tier, just based on material (though Coolidge’s lack of material is part of her joke), then I guess Posey and McKean. They’re both good, they just don’t have the best parts in their couples.
Guest’s direction—and the importance of the editing—comes through most in the first half, before the film can rely on Willard to move mountains; again, Best in Show is a comedy masterpiece, with Guest leveraging the cast’s abilities (not to mention his own) and he and Leighton’s phenomenal editing of the material. Roberto Schaefer’s photography is also excellent, although not as consequential to the film’s big successes. Some of the lighting is so good you wish the interview segment could go on longer just to showcase it.
While it may very well be possible for a comedy mockumentary to be better than Best in Show… it seems very unlikely. The film’s a (quietly) remarkable achievement.