'Best in Show' is a runner-up

Hearts are thumping, noses are quivering and fur is flying as eager competitors wait their turns to shine at the prestigious if fictional Mayflower Dog Show. But the prized pooches seem to be taking the hoopla surrounding the canine Olympics in stride.

But then, the dog owners are the real subject in Christopher Guest's "Best in Show," a genial mockumentary modeled on the satirist's 1996 little-theater spoof, "Waiting for Guffman." Although it has blue-ribbon moments, the new comedy just isn't as fresh or focused as the first.

Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy provided the cast, most of whom also appeared in "Guffman," with a 15-page outline, then let the gifted players riff and, over 60 hours of filming, enrich their characters. But the actors' ad-libbed responses, along with their amateurish reactions to the ever-present camera, are more forlorn than comedic.

The kennel club members are blissfully ignorant of their peculiarities as they dream, preposterously, of acclaim. Here the dog owners converge on Philadelphia's Mayflower competition (modeled on New York's Westminster dog show), all with their hearts set on taking home the top prize.

Guest, who played the flamboyant stage maven in "Guffman," muzzles his madcap tendencies in the role of Harlan Pepper of Pine Nut, N.C. A courtly fly-fishing expert, Harlan leaves his buddies in charge of his bait shop and heads for Philadelphia with his beloved bloodhound, Hubert. Harlan believes Hubert will use his psychic powers to influence the judges.

In addition to his writing duties, Levy portrays Gerry Fleck, a mild-mannered menswear salesman who is happily married to Cookie (Catherine O'Hara). Gerry and Cookie are planning to show Winky, their happy little Norwich terrier.

Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins (HBO's "The Late Shift") are charmingly quirky in what might have been stereotypical gay roles. They are the life of the party until the arrival of the waggish Fred Willard as Buck Laughlin, an oblivious broadcaster modeled on the oblivious Joe Garagiola.

Willard's work also demonstrates that the movie, a loosely structured series of vignettes, needed a strong protagonist throughout. Moviegoers, like dogs, need somebody to bond with.


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