For many who find the sitcom, rather than the much maligned pun, to be the lowest form of humor, few comedic genres may seem potentially fresher and more promising than the "mockumentary," or satiric pseudo-documentary.
Unfortunately, it’s a promise that often goes unfulfilled. Director Rob Reiner and writer-costar Christopher Guest brought wit and subtlety to their pioneering 1984 classic cult favorite, This is Spinal Tap (a documentary of a fictitious heavy-metal band). Since then, though, for every clever, on-target use of the technique (Strictly Ballroom; To Die For), there are crude, clunky imitators (Drop Dead Gorgeous; The Big Tease).
The good news about Best in Show, the latest film from mockumentary veteran Christopher Guest (Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman), is that it’s funny — sometimes very funny. Guest is a sort of purist who creates the impromptu feel and immediacy of documentary by working from a short outline rather than a finished script; so his players really are ad-libbing to a significant degree.
In this film, Guest turns his satirical sights on a ready target: the sometimes surreal world of dog shows, show dogs, and of course dog owners, breeders, and handlers. Guest is also in front of the camera, where he gets some of the film’s funniest and most bizarre moments as Harlan Pepper, a low-key but eccentric North Carolina native with some curious ideas about his dog, a bloodhound.
Best in this show, however, is easily Fred Willard as Buck Laughlin, a blithely clueless but talkative TV sportscaster at the annual Mayflower Kennel Club dog show in Philadelphia. Laughlin unwittingly cramps the style of his knowledgable but reserved British co-anchor (Jim Piddock) with such hilariously inane commentary as "It’s terrible to think that these dogs would be eaten in some countries," and, "Just how do they miniaturize dogs, anyway?"
What a pity that with such funny material, Guest and company found it necessary to rely so heavily on sex as a supplementary source of comedy. There’s no doubt that sex can be funny; C. S. Lewis once remarked on the ubiquity and antiquity of jokes about sex. At the same time, the special genius of this particular film has to do with a specific subject that is completely unrelated to sex. I don’t think it’s an accident that the film’s two funniest characters — Harlan Pepper and Buck Laughlin — are virtually the only ones who don’t drag their sex lives into the story.
The first scene sets the tone, with hopelessly yuppie couple Hamilton and Meg Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) at a psychiatrist’s office, unhappily discussing the traumatic effects suffered by their Weimaraner after the dog witnessed the couple engaging in sexual experimentation. Fortunately, the Swans become much funnier once they get this material out of the way and begin fighting over things like a lost dog toy.
Then there’s Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy and Catharine O’Hara), who own a Norwich Terrier. Their schtick is that he is insecure and nerdy in horn-rimmed glasses and buck teeth and identical left shoes, and she is a woman with such a loose past that everywhere she goes she is always running into past lovers and one-night stands. The joke is that Gerry must endure constant humiliation as these men invariably approach his wife as if he weren’t even there, casually talking dirty to her as they reminisce about her sexual prowess or openly express admiration for her. This recurring gag very quickly wears out its welcome, but Guest confidently keeps coming back to it as if he’s convinced it’s hilarious, which it never was, or as if it were going somewhere, which it never does.
There’s also a gay New York couple, flaming Scott (John Michael Higgins) and genial Stefan (Michael McKean, who’s been in a million things but is still referred to by most people as "you know, Lenny from Laverne & Shirley"). They own a Shih Tzu. Their schtick is that they are gay, especially Scott. Scott makes incessant phallus jokes, and Stefan good-naturedly humors him like a husband with a giddy wife. Like the homosexual neighbors in American Beauty, Scott and Stefan have the only completely happy, stable, non-dysfunctional relationship in the movie.
Finally, there’s an odd threesome composed of a senile old billionaire (Bob Balaban), who has no dialogue and is more of a prop than a character; his glamor-puss trophy wife (Jennifer Coolidge), who raises poodles with her geriatric husband’s money and bubbles about all she has in common with him ("We both like soup"); and their female trainer (Jane Lynch), who’s so butch that, when she stands next to the wife, it’s like Ellen DeGeneres and Anna Nicole Smith. Given Ellen DeGeneres’s well-known sexual preference, and the nature of Anna Nicole Smith’s relationship with her husband, can you guess where this is headed?
By the end of the film, then, four out of eight characters actively involved with other characters are in gay relationships (this discounts Harlan, who’s uninvolved, and the senile billionaire, who’s irrelevant). For a film that’s not specifically a gay sex comedy — or even a sex comedy at all — that seems a high ratio. A preoccupation with sex makes sense in a film like This is Spinal Tap, but here it seems gratuitous and tacked-on, as if Guest doesn’t trust the material to be funny in itself. Ironically, it’s funniest when sex is not the issue.
Like Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind follows a number of musicians who never actually existed, but often feel as if they might have. There’s a convincing history to the Folksmen, Mitch & Mickey, and the New Main Street Singers, developed by Guest through a combination of pseudo-archival footage, interview sequences, and period album covers that folk fans might almost remember having seen in their collections.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.