Age has turned the people of "Best in Show" from goofs to relatable

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

“Best in Show”
Released Sept. 29, 2000
Directed by Christopher Guest

The cliché says that dogs are man’s best friend, but it feels more real than ever. Social media and reality shows have shown us exactly how much we love our pets as family members, as we celebrate their arrival, laugh at funny moments, or mourning their passing. In an age where we argue about everything, dogs continue to be one of the things we can agree with.

Upon release in 2000, Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show” won laughs and hearts for its look at peculiar dog owners and their competitive quest to win a national contest for canines, but two decades later, the owners don’t seem as unusual as initially thought. The mockumentary-style comedy follows their journeys as they compete for the coveted prize, “Best in Show.”

What’s unique about “Best in Show” is that the entire movie featured improv actors developing full scenes based on a story by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. A New York theater actor, Guest discovered a gift for improv and comedic character development with work on “The National Lampoon Radio Hour” and television’s “Saturday Night Live.” His most famous character, guitarist Nigel Tufnel, gained fame in the brilliant Rob Reiner comedy “This is Spinal Tap” about a British rock band facing the downside of their careers. Levy is a Canadian improv comic and a principal cast member of “SCTV,” the sketch comedy series born out of the Toronto Second City troupe that also included John Candy, Rick Moranis, Harold Ramis, Martin Short, and Catherine O’Hara. Guest and Levy first collaborated for the story that became 1997’s “Waiting for Guffman,” which was directed by Guest. Using the same method developed with “Spinal Tap” and continued with “Best in Show,” “Waiting for Guffman” cast improv comics to take the ideas generated by the writers to create scenes with each other. Joining Guest and Levy was O’Hara, Parker Posey, Fred Willard and Bob Balaban, all of whom returned to star in “Best in Show.”

The comedic ensemble formed by “Guffman” was joined in “Best in Show” by another “Spinal Tap” star Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, and Jane Lynch. Together, all the actors worked to build incredible trust with each other using their experience and the golden improv rule “yes, and …” that requires you to follow the lead of your scene partners. Through this system, the laughs are found not through an exquisitely written punch line, but rather the realization of these relatable characters and their unique flaws as they interact with each other. The actors are not racing to the joke but playing the roles, secure in the knowledge that the laughter will come to them.

This approach distinguishes “Best in Show” from the other comedies of the time, which often rely on its lead male characters to become immature man-children. Not that this style of comedy doesn’t have its place and produced several hilarious films, but the characters of the Guest/Levy comedies are all functioning adults with flaws and eccentricities turned up to 11. That’s why a movie like “Best in Show” can let itself have a scene or two that doesn’t build to a punch line, but instead continue to develop the characters for a quiet moment that may lead to an even bigger laugh down the line.

Comedies are difficult to critique in a way that captures the spirit of the film without erasing everything funny about them, so I’ll refrain from running down a “Best of ‘Best in Show’” review, but I can’t help but mention Willard’s role as the dog show color commentator. Somehow, he manages to find every single dumb thought we’ve ever had about dogs and the idiot courage to say them aloud. Kudos also to James Piddock sitting next to Willard as the beleaguered experienced dog show announcer who must suffer this fool semi-gladly.

Looking at some of the significant reviews of “Best in Show” upon release, the tone of sneering condensation toward the film characters is evident, with Roger Ebert implying some of the characters are “more inbred than their animals,” and the New York Times thinking the cast “emanates from the post-collegiate baby boomer belief in an elite ‘hipoisie’ who, unlike everyone else, know what’s cool and what’s not.” Truthfully, I might have agreed with them at the time, feeling superior to these silly people and their passion for dogs. But a decade of reading social media has shown us that we probably reveal more of ourselves online than we realize. Our passions and flaws are more evident than ever, and in that, the people of “Best in Show” seem more human than ever.

The ensemble team led by Guest and Levy continued working together for several other feature films like “A Mighty Wind” and “For Your Consideration.” Guest also directed “Mascots,” a Netflix film that features several cast members of these films, while Levy co-created the acclaimed comedy series “Schitt’s Creek” that also stars his frequent collaborator O’Hara. Regardless of their future together, it’s clear that this team created some of the funniest films of all time, and anyone looking to study comedic characters must find their way to “Best in Show.”

The Weekend: The last weekend of September brings several films that may not immediately jump to the forefront of a cinemaniac’s mind, but are fondly remembered by filmgoers.

First up is 1983’s “The Big Chill,” which brought together several classmates for an adult reunion after one of their friends commits suicide. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan and starring an all-star ensemble including Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt and Kevin Kline, the film used popular songs from the previous two decades to compile nostalgia’s greatest hits compellation to become a best seller. The format would continue to prove popular for films afterward, from “Forrest Gump” to “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Nostalgia was examined in a different way within Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused,” released in 1993. The film takes place over one day in 1977 as high school kids survive the last day of school and celebrate at a party later. The film brought together many notable actors of its generation (including Posey, Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck) as they explored the various social classes within the students. The film failed at the box office, but was hailed by critics and fans over the years as an honest portrayal of youth in rebellion and leisure.

Australian Paul Hogan managed to crossover to the United States, however briefly, with his “Crocodile Dundee” character, debuting on Sept. 26, 1986. The fish-out-of-water comedy became a massive hit domestically, grossing more than $174 million with a theater run that lasted well into 1987.

Other notable films include Michael Mann directing Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe in the period adventure-romance “The Last of the Mohicans,” released this weekend in 1992. Denzel Washington takes charge of a young football team in 2000’s “Remember the Titans,” and continued to find success at the box office in this time frame with 2014’s “The Equalizer” and 2016’s “The Magnificent Seven.” Reese Witherspoon staked her claim as a marketable A-list star with 2002’s romantic comedy “Sweet Home Alabama,” while Dwayne Johnson carried one of his first pictures in 2003’s “The Rundown.” Director Rian Johnson continued his streak of great movies with the release of 2012’s “Looper,” featuring Bruce Willis as a time-traveling assassin who must contend with his younger self, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Next Week: “The Social Network”