THE BEST COMEDY of the last 10 years was either the Clinton impeachment vote (note to Republicans: ha ha!) or Waiting For Guffman. Both were "mockumentaries" (i.e. fake documentaries with pre-established outcomes), both made fun of people's pretensions to fame, and both led to the downfall of Newt Gringrich. Well, actually only the Clinton impeachment trial did that, but otherwise they're tied for funniest moment of the '90s.
Since the architects of the Clinton impeachment vote are now too busy watching their anointed savior fumble a 15-point lead while mispronouncing "subliminal" to get around to a sequel, it's up to the Guffman folks to entertain us at the dawn of this new century.
So Christopher Guest, Guffman director and lead guitarist of Spinal Tap, has, in collusion with Guffman writer and Second City TV funnyman Eugene Levy, set loose upon the world Best in Show.
Best in Show, like the Clinton impeachment brouhaha, is about trained dogs. However, the dogs in Best in Show are not running for congress, but rather for the coveted "Best" title at the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show.
Like the characters in Guffman, Best in Show's dog owners are naively ordinary people. In one of the best comic performances since the founding of Belgium, Christopher Guest plays stoic southern fishing shop owner Harlan Pepper. Guest is an incredible chameleon, and while he was the highlight of Guffman in his portrayal of fruity theater director Corky St. Clair, his performance here is so unlike that one (or his portrayal of Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel) that it takes a while to even recognize that he's the same actor.
Matching him in role immersion are Eugene Levy and the world's greatest comedienne, Catherine O'Hara, as Midwestern suburbanites Gerry and Cookie Fleck. Levy plays essentially the same character that he played in Guffman and American Pie, the middle-aged nerd whose every movement is a study in discomfort. He's pretty much perfected this role, and when he quotes Johnny Carson it's doubly hilarious, as he really seems like he's trying to be funny and failing miserably. It's kind of like watching Jay Leno, if Jay Leno weren't a combination of pathetic comedian manqué and annoying blowhard, but rather just a pathetic comedian manqué and self-conscious nerd-boy, so that you could laugh at him without any spite.
While Guest, Levy and O'Hara could get yuks reading from the later essays of Immanuel Kant, the best scripted lines in this mostly ad-libbed movie go to Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock as the yuppie couple whose sex life is being ruined by their ill-tempered Weimeraner. Asked how they got together, Posey says "We met at Starbucks," and is immediately corrected by her husband who interjects, "Well, not the same Starbucks. We were at different Starbucks across the street from each other." OK, maybe it doesn't get big guffaws when printed on newsprint, but it's freakin' hilarious when they do it with their perfect, uptight yuppie mannerisms and accents.
Oddly, while this cast of comic geniuses is all great, the best moments come from Fred Willard, who's something of a hit-or-miss comedian. He plays the ill-informed dog show announcer Buck Laughlin, and he finds his best foil since he left Martin Mull's America 2Night (anyone remember that little comic gem from late-night television in the '70s?) in stone-cold British dog expert Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock).
The cast is rounded out with a killer performance by John Michael Higgins as an extremely fruity Shih Tzu owner who sews his own leather pants and notes of another contestant's outfit that she "looks like a cocktail waitress on an oil rig." Michael McKean, Ed Begley Jr. and Bob Balaban also turn in some great material, all the more impressive when you know they were working without a fixed script.
In spite of its ad-libbed nature, Best in Show is shockingly tight. There are no set-up scenes or filler scenes; everything simultaneously advances the story and characters while still managing to be funny. There is, in fact, no scene without at least one good laugh.
In keeping the film so tight, director Guest paid the price of making it short, perhaps a little too short. Its 90 minutes leave one wanting more, and if it could maintain its momentum the film would not have been tiring at twice the length. Still, leaving the theater wanting more is better than leaving unsatisfied any day, and in this age of pointlessly bloated "director's cuts," it's hard to fault a filmmaker for failing to overfill.
Best in Show opens Friday at Century El Con (202-3343) and Foothills (742-6174).