Christopher Guest knows this, and, as a result, his new comedy, Best in Show, should ride a gravy train of enthusiasm from Chihuahua to Labrador. The keenly observant wit who brought us The Big Picture and Waiting for Guffman also shows a great sense of compassion for his bipedal subjects, so the cute-dog antics, despite their consumer allure, aren't even the main point of this exercise. Rather, Guest, along with cowriter Eugene Levy, uses acute ACD to ... er ... tap into America, allowing the dogs and their obsessive owners to lead us through this big, strange country. The destination is Philadelphia, where the mutts and their masters will compete in the prestigious 125th Annual Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. En route, we're treated to some of the most astute -- if obvious -- domestic caricatures outside a Mike Judge series.
The movie opens by introducing us to our hopeful contestants, sometimes in faux-documentary interviews (a brilliant and endlessly amusing stylistic hand-me-down from Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap) and sometimes in harrowing scenes from their lives, as when yuppies Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) consult their analyst (Jay Brazeau) about their moody Weimaraner. "Beatrice has been showing signs of depression," the Illinois lawyers somberly explain. "She's also been very angry with us, ever since she saw us having sex." Before Meg can fill in too many details regarding the Kama Sutra's "Congress of the Cow," however, we swiftly cut to Cookie and Gerry Fleck (Catherine O'Hara and Levy) of Fern City, Fla,, who'll be trekking north to see whether their terrier, Winky, will take the top prize. Intimately challenged in their own unique way, the two bumble through the heartland much like the Griswolds of National Lampoon's Vacation, in which Levy also appeared, as a shifty car dealer.
Sexual healing seems to be the order of the day, as an absurdly coiffed standard poodle and a winsome shih tzu are packed off to the show by their owners, both same-sex couples. The poodle, Rhapsody in White, is handled by the Anne Heche-like Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch), who also enjoys handling the dog's voluptuous owner, Sherri Ann Ward Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), an overeater in the vein of Anna Nicole Smith whose sugar daddy, Leslie Ward Cabot (Patrick Cranshaw), remains bug-eyed and oblivious. Balancing the equation are Tribeca hairdresser Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean) and his own personal handler, Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins), who gleefully fuss over their shih tzu, Miss Agnes, when they're not fretting over how many kimonos to bring along to Philly.
Rounding out the primary cast is Guest himself, playing an eccentric loner named Harlan Pepper. Like McKean, Guest is an alumnus of Spinal Tap, so pouring himself into caricature -- in this case, a rube from North Carolina who runs a fly-fishing shop -- comes naturally to him. While Pepper shuttles his chunky bloodhound, Hubert, out of rebel realms to "put some hurtin' on them Yankee dogs," we accompany the hopeful Confederates in their mobile home. During these segments, Guest seems to be challenging us (and possibly himself) to accept the guy's pre-Civil War accent, bad mustache and self-obsessed cutesiness. There are times -- as when he proudly rattles off the names of various nuts or practices some particularly shoddy ventriloquism -- that one must suppress an urge to bolt from the theater. Fortunately, as with all of the characters, Guest has clever transformations in store for Pepper.
Because so much of the movie is clearly improvised, only a very loose structure strings the events together. Once we arrive at the show, this ceases to matter anyway, because the fun is in watching these weirdos obsess over their furry friends. Posey and Hitchcock, who have by this point recounted their first meeting in two Starbucks across the street from one another, professing their love for catalogs over people, provide the majority of the film's anxious barking. As a hotel manager, Ed Begley Jr. turns in a wonderfully wry performance, generously offering a strapped couple lodging in a utility closet. Fred Willard and Jim Piddock provide the most predictable moments as official commentators -- one rude, one a prude -- who sauce up the competition with blather and bickering.
It's obvious that Guest and crew have a hit on their hands with Best in Show, but one must set aside the ghost of Spinal Tap -- a much funnier movie, now nearly two decades old -- to appreciate the easily digestible quirks trotted out here. Although the movie is frequently sharp and funny ("She looks like a cocktail waitress on an oil rig," comments McKean of Lynch) and weirdly relatable (as when the rubes simply do not know when to stop talking), the material feels too much like reality, not surprising enough. Still, as a cross section of American weirdos, it's undeniably amusing.