Christopher Guest is one of the founding members of Spinal Tap. Look at his filmography as a writer -- The Big Picture, Waiting For Guffman and the latest, Best In Show -- and you can see that his interests have shifted. He used to be preoccupied with ordinary people in bizarre situations. Now he likes to find the bizarreness in ordinary people.
The characters in Spinal Tap are not in and of themselves particularly interesting. The humour of the film (This Is Spinal Tap) emerges from guys with "pub band" written all over them trying to live up to their own pretensions.
Visual gags The Big Picture, a little-seen film from 1989 featuring Kevin Bacon as a recent film-school grad battling studio politics, is similar in theme but more esoteric in its setting -- not many people would recognize the visual gags in the art direction. But you get a feel for the later films when Jennifer Jason Leigh, a fellow graduate, announces that she's given up cinema for "ham radio performance art."
Recruiting members of the SCTV crew -- notably co-scenarist Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara -- Guest moved on to Guffman, a portrait of community theatre that is actually more surreal than Spinal Tap and, I think, funnier. Now that the super-deluxe, multiple-commentary-track Spinal Tap DVD has become available, when, oh when, will Warner Brothers give Waiting For Guffman the same treatment? There are apparently about eight hours of available material.
Best In Show brings diverse characters from across the U.S. to a big dog show. Guest himself plays Harlan Pepper, a southerner with a great bloodhound, Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins play a couple with a Shih Tzu, Jennifer Coolidge is the trophy wife of an extremely old man and the owner of a champion poodle, Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock are yuppies from hell, and Levy and O'Hara play a Florida couple with a scruffy terrier.
Best In Show isn't as funny as Waiting For Guffman. It lacks Guffman's sense of a deranged ensemble in which everybody's obsessions bounced off everyone else's, not to mention the crackle of so many good comic actors jammed into the same set. Preston Sturges in his prime would have had trouble topping that cast.
It's the same players here, but each character is locked into an individual universe. Guest's taciturn Kentuckian would have made a much more interesting romantic partner for Coolidge's uberbimbo than the one she ends up with.
And Parker Posey's full-bore commitment to her character is somehow not funny when she's playing a wildly unpleasant yuppie. Posey playing unpleasant is painfully unpleasant -- you can't imagine how this character got this far in her life without someone killing her.
Odd moments Best In Show has wonderful odd moments. I was particularly fond of Fred Willard's hilariously inappropriate commentary as a TV host for the show, and I appreciated Levy and O'Hara's faces when they realize their hotel room is in fact a utility closet. And the "Where are they now?" closing bits almost match the similar conclusion to Guffman.
Hollywood these days seems incapable of making a comedy about ordinary people without making them either relentlessly banal or Jerry Springer grotesque. Guest and his cast have captured the ordinariness of their characters while realizing that the "ordinary" is just a mask that covers compulsions, obsessions and weirdness that are themselves endearing.
BEST IN SHOW, directed by Christopher Guest, written by Guest and Eugene Levy, produced by Karen Murphy, with Guest, Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Michael McKean, Parker Posey and Jennifer Coolidge. 90 minutes. A Castle Rock Production. A Warner Brothers release. Opens September 27. For venues and times see First-Run Movies, page 88. Rating: NNN