The first characters we meet in Christopher Guest’s most recent “mockumentary” are Meg (Parker Posey in an as-usual frenetic and outstanding performance) and Hamilton Swan (Michael Hitchcock), a yuppie power couple who have taken their Weimaraner Beatrice to a doggy psychiatrist. It seems Beatrice has been morose and uncooperative, hardly displaying the canine mental health she needs for the upcoming Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. Meg and Hamilton fear Beatrice may be experiencing some psychological trauma, or even Oedipal crisis, as she has witnessed her parents having sex doing it, as they admit, “doggie style.”
Like Guest’s previous Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show is funniest when overtly satirical of cultural trends and norms. What often makes Guest’s mockumentaries entertaining is his ability to send-up so perfectly people we all know, or familiar “types” of people. We recognize Meg and Hamilton as “catalogue people” (as Guest calls them), whose lives revolve around brand consciousness and loyalty. The couple fell in love after repeatedly running into each other at a couple of local Starbucks the ones right across the street from each other and their shared love for designer coffee, Macintosh computers, and catalogue shopping stirred their romance. Cocktailing at the pre-Mayflower reception, Meg and Hamilton ask everyone they meet the provenance of their clothing “Is that from L. L. Bean?” And the very reason they own Beatrice is that they saw a Ralph Lauren ad featuring Weimaraners. Brands, brands, brands. It is in Meg and Hamilton that Best in Show launches its most pointed critique, skewering the Starbucksification of U.S. culture.
However, the major disappointment is that the rest of the film fails to live up to the dead-on satire of Meg and Hamilton Swan, even though the cross-class dynamics of the amateur dog-show circuit would seem an excellent context for a critique of contemporary America. Instead, Best in Show is content to rather unselfconsciously replicate a number of class-based and homophobic stereotypes. The relationship of stereotype to satire is, of course, tricky. On one level, in order to denounce political abuses and social follies (its classical modus operandi) satire must use familiar, even exaggerated, stereotypes to make its point. And so, the remainder of Best in Show‘s cast of characters are awfully commonplace. There’s good ol’ boy Harlan Pepper (Guest), a bait-and-tackle shop owner from Pine Nut, North Carolina, who has big hopes for his Bloodhound Hubert, and the resolutely working class Florida couple Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara), who are aspiring singers (all their songs revolve around their Norwich Terrier Winky) and always struggling to make ends meet. We meet the totally lovey-dovey, and more than a little swishy, gay couple Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins) and Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean) and their Shih Tzu Miss Agnes Moorehead, and the gold-digging Sheri Ann Ward Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), whose interest in her Standard Poodle Rhapsody in White is really motivated by her affair with Rhapsody’s handler Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch).
As such, these characters only work as satire, as the exaggeration of some common cultural “truth” or characteristic in order to draw attention to its absurdity, or as a problem. The question I am left with, in relation to all these other characters, is what, if anything, are they satirizing? While Meg and Hamilton are directly critical of American consumerism and cultural standardization, what, for instance, do Gerry and Cookie Fleck, or Scott Donlan and Stefan Vanderhoof satirize? The only answer I keep coming back to is “nothing.” These “other” characters don’t critique the norms and forms of U.S. culture, but merely make malicious fun of certain “kinds” of people.
Guest has said that he doesn’t really consider himself a satirist though and that when he conceives a character he wants first to make people laugh, and second create emotionally rounded, “real” characters. This helps me understand my own discomfort with Best in Show. If these characters are not satiric, but supposed to somehow represent “real” people, then Guest demonstrates that he can only conceive of characters in the most limited, and, really, rather offensive ways. Floridians Gerry and Cookie Fleck are low-rent buffoons who cannot handle their own money. Further, Cookie has had a rather loose past (invoking the moral judgment of working class women’s sexuality, to which I say only: The Accused, which tries to show how Sarah Tobias is a victim of legal bigotry, yet the film tirelessly reconnects working class status to sexual promiscuity), and even though she assures Gerry that he is “her man now,” she repeatedly runs into ex-lovers.
The most obnoxious characters by far, in terms of any sort of “realness,” are the gay couple Scott and Stefan, most especially Scott, who seems to have stepped right out of William Friedkin’s 1970 phobe-fest The Boys in the Band. Scott Donlan is terribly similar to Corky St. Clair, the role Guest played in Waiting for Guffman. Both are overly effeminate gay men seemingly torn between an almost pathological concern for their image and public performance and a persistent need to relate everything to their and other men’s dicks. There is no social or political commentary in Guest’s characterization of Scott Donlan or Corky St. Clair, merely a homophobic enjoyment in the public spectacle of mincing gay men.
Despite this major shortcoming, there are moments of enjoyment in Best in Show, which come, for the most part, in any scene with Meg and Hamilton. But in the end, I am left feeling like Best in Show is just a “shaggy dog.” You know, those jokes that are so corny and worn out that they are bothersome, but still elicit a reluctant laugh. While Best in Show is often funny (sometimes hilarious, actually), it is just as often bothersome, if not infuriating.