One of the more striking aspects about Best in Show, in retrospect, is how it seamlessly weaves queerness into the fabric of the film.
Dog people can make an easy target for cringe comedy, and yet Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries routinely use niche passions to draw together a diverse group of offbeat characters, rather than lampooning those passions outright. But whereas Guest’s first mockumentary, Waiting for Guffman, (1996), tells an underdog story of an acting troupe with ambitions that far exceed their ability, and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which Guest co-wrote and starred in, focuses on a marginally talented metal band suffering through dwindling appeal, Best in Show instead features characters seemingly on the ascent. In the process, the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show brings out the best and (more often) worst in the people with vested interests in the five dogs at its core, revealing deep-seated issues that no amount of wire-brushing can untangle. And while Guest feeds few lines to his talented ensemble of regulars—most of the dialogue is improvised—he and writing partner Eugene Levy sure do give their characters some compelling quirks.
Throughout the film, most characters project their own hang-ups and fixations onto their well-groomed animals. This tendency is depicted most outrageously in the doggie-therapy sessions that bookend the film and offer repressed married couple Meg and Hamilton (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) the chance to blame their dog Beatrice’s listlessness on witnessing their own rocky sex life. That the J.Crew-obsessed couple later becomes hilariously unraveled by a missing dog toy (“you run and you go get Busy Bee!”) highlights the tenuousness of their rapport. Their baby-talking to Beatrice comes the closest to outright mockery of folks whose pets are obvious stand-ins for children. And yet, despite his characters’ idiosyncrasies, Guest never allows the film to become mean-spirited.
While the dog show may cast further light on the wedge driving apart Meg and Hamilton, mutual fondness for a particular breed binds together Cookie and Gerry Fleck (Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy). On paper, the two characters don’t seem a natural match (though the actors portraying them would once again team up as a married couple years later on “Schitt’s Creek”). The once-promiscuous Cookie constantly runs into yet another of the self-described “hundreds” of old flames she’s let “poke” her over the years, while the nebbish Gerry is so awkward that he was literally born with two left feet. And yet their affinity for Norwich terriers leads them to not only show Winky, the dog that will pull an upset at the Mayflower, but also to record cheeseball novelty records about the breed. And likewise, the two-time defending champion poodle Rhapsody in White is integral to the relationship between the Anna Nicole Smithian gold-digger Sherri Ann (Jennifer Coolidge) and the dog’s brash handler Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch). Sherri Ann may profess to the camera that a shared love of soup or of “talking and not talking” brought her together with her elderly millionaire husband (Patrick Cranshaw), but her interest in dog shows is really just a cover for her barely hidden affair with Christy, whose self-esteem seems to hinge on the contest results.
In fact, one of the more striking aspects about Best in Show, in retrospect, is how it seamlessly weaves queerness into the fabric of the film. Upon the film’s 2000 release, American society was only three years removed from Ellen DeGeneres stoking controversy by simply coming out as gay. Federally recognized same-sex marriage within the next 20 years seemed like a longshot. Gay characters such as those found on “Will & Grace” were the exception and were still played largely to stereotype. While the flamboyance and camp that brims from partners Scott (John Michael Higgins) and Stefan (Michael McKean), respectively, could easily be accused of stereotype, Guest manages to highlight the mundanity of their same-sex relationship at a time when being openly gay was sensational. Scott and Stefan bicker over how much to to pack, and they call Stefan’s child to sweetly sing a bedtime song. Along with their prized Shih Tzu, they are a family like any other, complete with a meet-cute story that rightly leads them to define theirs as the “all-American love story,” a prescient sentiment given the shifting cultural landscape over the past two decades.
And untouched by the rest of the ensemble’s frequent fluctuations between sexual desire and domesticity lies Harlan Pepper (Guest), the only single person among the featured group. Harlan ends up showing his bloodhound, a breed his family has raised for decades, more out of habit and obligation than anything else. Harlan seems more interested in fly-fishing, practicing his fledgling ventriloquism skills or reciting a memorized list of every nut there is. He treats his dog, Hubert, as a true companion, someone with whom he passes the time rather than as a stand-in for a child, a springboard to fame or an aesthetic for artistic expression. And though Guest, at times, plays him as a mush-mouthed rube, Harlan is canny enough to be wary of Christy’s backhanded compliments and is unfazed when encountering lifestyles outside his ken. This speaks to Guest and Levy’s overall deft touch with the crafting these characters and to the various actors’ impeccable improvisational talent, making each member of this core group objectively ridiculous while maintaining their humanity.
Of course, some of the film’s best moments are reserved for its side characters. Fred Willard’s cringe-inducing turn as the gauche color commentator juxtaposes perfectly with the stiff-upper-lip formality of his TV broadcast counterpart (Jim Piddock). In doing so, Guest pits this shameless outsider, rather than those participating wholeheartedly in the event, as the buffoon. Meanwhile, Ed Begley Jr.’s accommodating hotel manager plays straight man to some shenanigans while also leading a subset of the supporting cast who focus on the behind-the-scenes aspects of putting on a major dog show (such as which carpet-cleaning products work best on which types of dog poop).
All of Guest’s mockumentaries involve characters fixated on some aspect of the performing arts, but only in Best in Show does the particular type of performance itself seem almost beside the point. In subsequent films such as the folky A Mighty Wind (2003), film awards satire For Your Consideration (2006) and pep-drenched Mascots (2016), the performative trappings overwhelm the characters. But with Best in Show, Guest pulls off the nifty trick of using the pomp and circumstance of a stuffy, prestigious dog show to demonstrate the absurd messiness of being human.