SIMON HEFFER HIN­TER­LAND

Un­til the Bri­tish film in­dus­try re­dis­cov­ers its funny bone, Amer­ica will con­tinue to nab our wit­ti­est wags

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - FILM -

e Bri­tish know that most of the best tele­vi­sion of the past 15 or 20 years was made in Amer­ica, and that “Amer­i­can com­edy” is no longer an oxy­moron. I be­lieve there were some who, in ear­lier gen­er­a­tions, found I Love Lucy or M*A*S*H funny, but gen­er­ally what passed for Amer­i­can humour in the se­cond part of the 20th cen­tury was about as amus­ing as putting one’s head in a min­cer, and ex­em­pli­fied the gulf be­tween two na­tions sep­a­rated by an al­legedly com­mon lan­guage.

Since then, Amer­i­can com­edy has re­verted to some­thing ap­proach­ing the charm of films from the Thir­ties and For­ties such as The Thin Man, Brew­ster’s Mil­lions (the 1945 ver­sion with Den­nis O’Keefe, not the Eight­ies re­make), Bring­ing Up Baby, His Girl Fri­day or Mr Bland­ings Builds his Dream House. The last three starred Cary Grant, who brought Bris­to­lian un­der­state­ment and sharp comic tim­ing. Equally, a flag­ship film of the Amer­i­can comic re­nais­sance (they would say comedic, but there is no such word in the English lan­guage, and there does not need to be), Best in Show (2000), was writ­ten and di­rected by, and co-starred, a man with joint English and Amer­i­can citizenship, Christo­pher Guest – the 5th Baron Haden-Guest, in fact. These days, Amer­ica is where English­men go if they want to be truly funny.

Best in Show is about five dogs and their owners and han­dlers who com­pete in the an­nual Mayflower dog show in Philadel­phia. Guest, who de­vel­oped the “mock­u­men­tary” style of film in the Eight­ies with This Is Spinal Tap and then, in the Nineties, with Waiting for Guff­man, uses the dogs and the com­pe­ti­tion in which they take part to ex­plore dif­fer­ent sorts of stereo­types, and to hold up an af­fec­tion­ate mir­ror to the Amer­i­can peo­ple. He suc­ceeds sub­limely.

Much of the script is im­pro­vised, mak­ing it seem un­re­hearsed in the best pos­si­ble way and caus­ing it to ra­di­ate spon­tane­ity. One senses that ev­ery­one is in on the joke, and the joke is the of­ten self-ob­sessed na­ture of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety – and the es­sen­tial ab­sur­dity of so many peo­ple in it.

The dogs are by some dis­tance the most nor­mal crea­tures in the film. Winky, the Nor­wich ter­rier be­long­ing to cash-strapped Gerry and Cookie Flett (Eu­gene Levy and Cather­ine O’Hara), has a tal­ent for ex­press­ing te­dium and giv­ing the im­pres­sion of re­luc­tantly in­dulging its owners.

Guest him­self plays a ge­nial red­neck from North Carolina who as­pires to be a ven­tril­o­quist, is an ex­pert on nuts, and is, in gen­eral, con­sid­er­ably less level-headed than his beloved blood­hound, Hu­bert.

But the stars of the film are a cou­ple of ul­tra-camp New York ho­mo­sex­u­als (John Michael Hig­gins and Michael McK­ean) with their shih tzu, Miss Agnes. Their ease and seren­ity run through the film like a core of san­ity, para­dox­i­cally de­spite their oc­ca­sion­ally out­ra­geous be­hav­iour. Be sure, if you get the DVD, to watch the deleted scenes, be­cause the best line in the film isn’t ac­tu­ally in it: when the cou­ple meet two men named Jack, Hig­gins ob­serves: “You’re a pair of Jacks. We’re a pair of queens. We win.”

As in so many Bri­tish films, the root of the com­edy lies mainly in the class sys­tem, and the foibles of the dif­fer­ent tribes within it. It is that connection with our own sense of humour, and our shared values (not least our love of an­i­mals), that makes Best in Show so ut­terly ap­peal­ing. Per­haps we might, one day, start mak­ing such nat­u­rally funny films again our­selves.

WAGGLY TALEJane Lynch, left, and Jen­nifer Coolidge in Best in Show

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