Best in Show / Clockwatchers
January 29, 2019
John Michael Higgins
1 Hr., 30 Mins.
1 Hr., 36 Mins.
really, really want to pet the dogs featured in Best in Show (2000). I was most fixated on a ruddy-brown bloodhound named Hubert, whose owner, Harlan (Christopher Guest, the film’s writer and director), pets him in such a way that accentuates the mutt’s loose skin and protruding wrinkles. I’m not envious of Harlan himself, who is a fishing-goods store owner and aspiring ventriloquist. But I’m envious of his ownership of
this dog. I, too, would like to pet Hubert, day in and day out, in the same goofily loving manner.
But I know, deep in my heart, that if I were to be a civilian character featured in Best in Show, I would not be able to pet any of the dogs on whom Guest puts a spotlight. They’re show dogs. To stroke a back or scratch behind an ear would be to possibly catastrophically distract. Consider that, after losing track of her favorite stuffed bumblebee — or so her owners, the oversensitive yuppies Meg and Hamilton (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) would like to think — the anxious Weimaraner Beatrice is inspired to jump on a handler during a competition and get herself disqualified.
Yet it feels like I could so easily, since Best in Show is a documentary. Well, not really. It is, as historians like to say, a mockumentary — a comedy subgenre wherein everything is presented in mostly the same fashion as, say, Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988). Except the persons of interest are fictional, the story in place has been pre-planned, and the people behind the camera are mining for laughs, not candor. Conventionalities like talking-head interviews? It’s just acting!
The mockumentary is Guest’s specialty. He co-wrote, for example, This is Spinal Tap, a 1984 subgenre touchstone about a fictive rock band that so much ripped apart the tropes as seen in rockstar-concerned documentaries that anyone who so much dared to make the real deal afterward might be called a braveheart. Guest would try his luck again with Waiting for Guffman (1996), a lark about community-theater people. Then, in the aughts, the folk-music revival, Oscar moviemaking, and mascotting would be among the topics lampooned.
His 2000s began with Best in Show, a 90-minute feature about people who compete in dog shows. The film is focused on the owners of five canines (Posey and Hitchcock, Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge, Guest, and Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, all wonderful) and chronicles what might happen before, during, and after a given ceremony. The one in the movie is set in Philadelphia, and is being put on by the Mayflower Kennel Company. What drives the film’s humor, though, is not the lopsided pageant itself but the people who make it what it is.
The feature, largely improvised, manages to be so infectious, in part, because Guest and his committed performers clearly have affection for the characters on display, even if they’re relatively batty. The humor is not mean-spirited or belittling; like a particularly good improv show, we bask in the glory of talented actors who, after being provided with defining traits like having a set of fake teeth or a type-A personality, turn into unnervingly specific caricatures. I’ve met people like these ones. My favorite person in Best in Show is not half of a couple but rather the show’s announcer, who is played by Fred Willard as a daffy man whose silly observations and tangents effectively — and hilariously — clash with how seriously everyone else in the movie is taking all the pomp.
A less heedful filmmaker and a second-rate cast could easily get the tone wrong, or ensure the premise to lose its shine a little after the first act. But think about how you feel when you’re watching an especially good documentary. Once you’re involved in the storyline, you’re enraptured. Best in Show operates similarly. Only it gets you laughing, too.
ost of Clockwatchers (1997) takes place inside of an office building. Sometimes Hell, with its omnipresent fire and never-ending screams, seems more appealing. You know what a cubicle-infested space is like: the desks and chairs grey, brightened only by clinical fluorescent lighting; quiet but persistent muzak playing in the background, accompanied by
by phone rings, printer whirrs; workers who look like they might prefer being gawked at like tigers in a cage to being here.
Clockwatchers, which was co-written and directed by Jill Sprecher, emphasizes the people who want to be here the least: the temps. Our point of entry is Iris (Toni Collette), a meek new hire who has grown accustomed to spending her professional life as something of a ghost. Unassertive and socially awkward, it seems that temping is exactly right for her. She doesn’t have to get attached to anyone, and isn’t really expected to. She isn’t exactly satisfied, but she’s unsure of a better, attainable alternative.
In the movie, Iris befriends a trio of other temps working at the same office. Each of them is comparatively professionally bored, but they’ve all freelanced long enough to know the rules of the game. Margaret (Parker Posey), a fast-talking, outspoken extrovert, implores Margaret, early on, to abscond the practice of ethically putting someone on hold. To save time, just forget about them — the caller will take the hint eventually. Paula (Lisa Kudrow), a prospective actress, has learned to almost go numb while she’s working, and instead focus her attention on the joys of post-work fun. Jane (Alanna Ubach) has learned to stop caring at all. She’s engaged, and reasons that maybe domestic life will get her out of this line of work anyway. For a period, this quartet is tightly knit. But after a while, the tedium of office work, paired with a competitiveness that stems from simultaneously bidding for a more permanent job, desiccates their friendships.
What makes Clockwatchers good — and disconcerting — is how agilely it captures the drudge of office living. Whereas the more zeitgeisty Office Space (1999) and The Office (2005-2012) were able to efficiently satirize the frustrations that come from having bad bosses, being saddled with monotonous tasks, and putting up with vexing co-workers, Clockwatchers, though funny, puts an accent on the despair. These characters feel anonymous, forgettable — as if they’re passing through life like gusts of wind. One of the characters eventually gets fired, but the woman who sacks her, a busybody named Barbara (Deborah Jo Rupp), doesn’t even know her name. The kind of occupational anguish exhibited here is one I’ve experienced myself — and is the type I’m always worried will come to define my working life after settling into the next job.
Best in Show: A-