In 1984, Rob Reiner released “This Is Spïnal Tap,” his hilarious rockumentary about the fictional British heavy metal band that became a comedy classic and still serves as inspiration for the genre.
Reiner and actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer would create rough scene outlines, then they and others improvised their dialogue giving the film a fresh, spontaneous feel with genuine character reactions. Twelve years later, Guest resurrected that formula with “Waiting for Guffman,” starring as Corky St. Clair, the ambitious director of a small community theater troupe in Missouri who are putting together a musical to celebrate the town’s sesquicentennial. Guest and Eugene Levy wrote character, story and scene outlines and then brought them to life along with actors including Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock and Larry Miller.
This Tuesday, the NAU CAL Film Series closes its Fall 2019 season celebrating Great Collaborations with “Best in Show,” Guest’s brilliantly funny mockumentary from 2000. Unlike most of the films showcased in the series that highlight longtime cinematic relationships between one director and one actor or between two actors, “Best in Show” celebrates a large and loose company with Guest at its hub. Featuring Levy, Willard, O’Hara, Posey, Hitchcock, Miller, Guest, McKean, Bob Balaban, John Michael Higgins and others as dog owners, handlers and announcers coming together in Philadelphia for the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show, the camera crew captures these people at their best and worst with all of their foibles, insecurities and obsessions playing out on camera, raw and unscripted. As with “Guffman” and the later mockumentaries “A Mighty Wind” (2003) and “For Your Consideration” (2006), Guest and Levy sketched out the broad strokes of character and story, letting the actors do the rest.
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The results are brilliant: veterans of National Lampoon, Second City, “Saturday Night Live” and other comedy proving grounds are practically guaranteed to be funny, but these actors manage to turn it to 11. As much fun as the dialogue they invent on the fly is the way these collaborators play off one another; they inhabit the characters to an extent that their reactions seem completely natural, and like good jazz musicians they know when to let their co-stars riff.
As Guest said in a 2004 interview with “The Guardian:” “You know the basic melody and the key changes, but it's how you get from one change to the next that matters, and you don't know in advance how you're going to do it. I'm completely blank before the camera rolls. I have absolutely no idea what I'm going to say."
With such a talented super-group it’s difficult to pick favorites. Higgins and McKean are droll and campy as Scott and Stefan, assured that their Shih Tzu, Miss Agnes, has what it takes. Posey and Hitchcock distill the essence of screechy, entitled yuppies whose horrible behavior threatens to make their poor Weimaraner, Beatrice, as miserable as themselves. Fred Willard’s clueless and unfiltered announcer is an obvious nod to sportscaster Joe Garagiola’s gig with the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show from 1994 to 2002. “To think that in some countries these dogs are eaten.” With collaborators like this it is difficult indeed to pick the Best in Show.