- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2000

''Best in Show" adds some delightful comic distinction to the year while renewing the partnership between writer-director-comedian Christopher Guest and writer-comedian Eugene Levy that began three years ago in "Waiting for Guffman."

Happily together again, they recruit a trusty cast of fellow improvisers, including such reliables as Catherine O'Hara (paired in a husband-and-wife match with Mr. Levy), Fred Willard, Michael McKean and Larry Miller, brilliantly reinforced by the trio of John Michael Higgins (paired with Mr. McKean in a flamboyant homosexual match), Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge.

Ensemble comedy is definitely the genre to favor this weekend, thanks to Mr. Guest's new movie and Robert Altman's "Dr. T & the Women." Mr. Guest maneuvers his group in the direction of a climactic sporting event, the annual dog show of the prestigious Mayflower Kennel Club, alleged to be the Philadelphia counterpart of Manhattan's Westminster Kennel Club, whose authentic show has recently enhanced cable television.

Mr. Guest is the only finalist traveling solo. His Harlan Pepper, the proprietor of a fishing store in little Pinenut, N.C., hopes to challenge the fancier breeds with an endearing bloodhound, Hubert. They get a wonderful send-off from Pinenut pals played by Will Sasso and Stephen E. Miller, who carol such encouragements as "Put some hurtin' on them Yankee dogs" and "If you get tired, pull over; if you get hungry, eat somethin'."

Mr. Levy and Miss O'Hara portray the somewhat improvident Flecks, Gerry and Cookie, who journey from Florida with a Norwich Terrier, Winky. Mr. McKean, a hair salon owner named Stefan Vanderhof, and Mr. Higgins, a professional dog handler and bundle of mischief named Scott Donlan, are conspicuously affluent. They arrive with several changes of costume and a cherished Shih Tzu, Miss Agnes.

Miss Lynch and Miss Coolidge are in the best position to sneak up on us. They contribute a hilarious demonstration of how opposites attract in "Best in Show."

Miss Coolidge's voluptuous and prodigiously opaque Sherri Ann Cabot is the trophy wife of a cadaverous old tycoon (Patrick Cranshaw), introduced and then discarded to make opportunistic room for Miss Lynch as their dog handler, Christy Cummings.

The vivacious Christy is destined to insinuate herself with Mrs. Cabot while supervising her pet standard poodle, Rhapsody in White, a defending Mayflower champion. Christy's drives and desires couldn't be more transparent. Sherri's couldn't be more impenetrable. Miss Coolidge seems to be a bimbo embodiment of the Rosetta Stone.

To even up the heterosexual ranks, Mr. Guest deploys Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock as bickering yuppies Meg and Hamilton Swan, who fear that they may have traumatized their neurotic Weimaraner, Beatrice. Something certainly spooks her, but as a practical matter, the Swans prove the farcical weak link among the pet owners. They operate in a self-centered, easy-to-dislike register that Mr. Guest doesn't begin to modulate until the epilogue.

There are some other miscalculations as the principals are introduced and put through preliminary trials. The Flecks come up short of funds at a Philadelphia hotel and end up occupying a storage closet. The episode is belabored and defies subsequent housekeeping updates.

A prodigious presence during the dog show itself, Mr. Willard enjoys a terrific mike partnership with Jim Piddock, an impeccable straight man. According to the director, Mr. Willard improvised all his babble without laying eyes on the dogs or principal cast members. A typical Buck Laughlin observation: "In some countries these dogs are eaten."

The stylistic flair of Mr. Guest when orchestrating a semidocumentary farce continues to improve. He has made the methodology of "This Is Spinal Tap" his specialty, and "Best in Show" benefits from a more confident and flexible sense of what the camera can do while supposedly intruding on reality.

3 and 1/2 out of four stars

TITLE: "Best in Show"

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity; occasional sexual candor and vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Christopher Guest

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

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