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"Waiting for Guffman's" Christopher Guest unleashes more hilarity with "Best In Show."

Puttin' On the Dog


Richmonders embraced Christopher Guest's "Waiting for Guffman" with a zealousness not often displayed for smaller, more independent-minded fare. Now, after a four-year wait, those fans finally have more to cheer. With "Best in Show," Guest returns to the big screen with yet another "mockumentary." But instead of mining amateur theatrics for comic gold as he did with "Guffman," this time he digs for laughs by skewering the fans and fanatics of dog shows. The result? Another hilarious treat with both bite and bark.

As with "Guffman," Guest gives his cast plenty of latitude in portraying a handful of easily recognized human breeds. Each wears his or her obsessions and eccentricities like a badge of comic courage, giving "Best" audiences the choice of laughing at or with them. As the movie opens, Guest introduces us to a gaggle of dog fanciers and their canines as they prepare to enter the prestigious — though fictitious — Philadelphia Mayflower Dog Show.

In Fern City, Fla., there's a Norwich terrier named Winky whose owners are the long-suffering, geeky menswear salesman Gerry Fleck (Eugene Levy) and his wife Cookie (Catherine O'Hara), a former waitress whose past romantic conquests they constantly run into.

New York hair-salon owner Stefan Vanderhoff (Michael McKean) and his longtime partner, the ultra-flamboyant dog handler Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) are fussing over their Shih Tzu.

Meanwhile, there are lustful sparks between handler Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch, who manages to spoof both Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche) and the voluptuous Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge paying homage to Anna Nicole Smith), who with her doddering old husband are about to enter their standard poodle. And in Illinois, intense yuppie lawyers Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) are clearly overly involved with their high-strung Weimaraner. Yes, all three are in therapy — together.

Interestingly, Guest gives himself one of the movie's smaller roles. But his portrayal of Harlan Pepper, a quirky fly-fishing shop owner and part-time ventriloquist from Pine Nut, N.C., with serious hopes for his prize Bloodhound, nearly steals the show.

As funny as it is watching Guest and company fidget, fret and fuss over both their animal and human companions, just wait until they get to the big show. That's where Fred Willard shines, serving up a pointed and dead-on riff as Buck Laughlin, a slightly dim-witted, former sports announcer who clearly knows nothing about the different breeds prancing before him.

Anyone who has ever watched the longest-running sporting competition in the world — I'm talking about the Westminster Dog Show, of course — will recognize immediately the inappropriate comments of a certain baseball type whom Willard spoofs. Watching him spout off a plethora of inane remarks ("In some countries these dogs are eaten.") is only half the fun.

The other half comes from watching his colleague (marvelous British actor Jim Piddock) get driven quietly over the edge. The majority of "Best in Show" was improvised around a story line developed by Guest and Levy, and the ad libs are priceless, especially when the mock competition suffers two major crises. In one, the Swans fall to pieces when their dog's favorite toy goes missing. And in the other, Gerry Fleck — who literally has two left feet — is forced to show his dog when his wife becomes ill.

"Best in Show" has more comic misses than "Guffman," but when you unmuzzle this much improvisational talent in one movie, the results are more than amusing. And when "Best in Show" is funny, it's very, very funny. Actually, my sides still hurt from laughing.

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