Dog Eat Dog 

The competition is barking farce in Christopher Guest’s Best of Show

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For brevity’s sake, let’s drastically oversimplify things and say there are two types of actors: those who can and those who can’t.

Cinema ClipsMeet the Parents ***

It feels like a funny sitcom pilot stretched to feature length, but director Jay Roach’s newest comedy get its laughs in nonetheless, largely thanks to an empathetic script that feels for Greg (Ben Stiller), but still puts him through hell. Greg is a male nurse who journeys to upstate New York to meet the parents of his live-in girlfriend (Teri Polo), who he’s asked to marry him. Unfortunately, it turns out her father is Robert DeNiro. Both Stiller and DeNiro are in top form, with DeNiro actually mining a little comic zing out of that well-weathered persona. The supporting cast is strong as well, particularly Owen Wilson as the perfect ex-fiancée who makes Greg look even worse. It’s all farce, but it’s very funny, and Roach knows how to keep things moving. Go meet them. (PG-13) —GB

Get Carter **1/2

Shouldn’t we be happier to see Sly? In his first real film since 1997’s Copland, Sylvester Stallone is the title character in a remake of the sharp 1971 thriller starring Michael Caine, who’s also in this version. In a script with more than a little Rocky flavor, Stallone is a Vegas hit man who returns home to Seattle to find out who capped his brother. An incoherent, murky script requires Stallone to get beat up a whole lot for no good reason, and the various tough guys who eventually bow to his wrath aren’t terribly interesting. There’s not much here—a couple of good lines from Rachael Leigh Cook as his niece, and a good fight or two. Still, it’s good to see Sly beating people up again. I was worried about the big guy. (R) —GB

The Exorcist ***1/2

It’s still scary as hell, this William Friedkin groundbreaker that was revolutionary when it first came on the scene. It’s being re-released with missing footage and a few other goodies, but what was left out the first time isn’t nearly as interesting as what Friedkin managed to leave in. Watching it with the perspective of time necessarily dulls its shock value (it really shouldn’t be funny to watch a 12-year-old girl masturbate with a crucifix, but God help us, it is), but it’s still obvious why this film has compelled and drawn audiences for 30 years with the relentlessness of a bug zapper. (R) —GB

The Tao of Steve ***

It’s not hard to see why Jenniphr Goodman’s fresh, feel-good love story was an audience favorite at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s one of those amusingly benign comedies about the finer points of the mating ritual. The film’s hero (Donal Logue) is an overweight, philosophy-spouting kindergarten teacher looking for love in Santa Fe. He’s the kind of guy who grows on you, working his charm in ways so subtle you hardly notice he’s made you take notice of him. He’s not the kind of romantic hero we usually see on-screen, which is a large part of his charm. The film’s insights may not be earth-shattering, but this smart romantic comedy is filled with refreshingly real people. (R) —MD

Remember the Titans **

Prepackaged for easy digestion, here’s the story of a suddenly integrated Virginia high school football team that struggles at first but eventually comes together across racial divides to win the big game or something. You’ve seen this movie before, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer doesn’t even try to fake it. We get blindingly obvious demarcations of good and evil, an aggressive soundtrack designed to cue emotions hard-wired into our collective subconscious by other movie soundtracks, a sheeny brand of cinematography and a script fanatically dedicated to avoiding surprises. Denzel Washington preens and poses as the head coach, and a few more characters get in a lick or two, but the emotion generated by the film is only slightly more fresh than watching a tape of a long-forgotten Super Bowl—unless that’s your thing, of course. (PG) —GB

Blood Simple ***

The Tower Theater is showing a newly restored, digitally enhanced and re-edited director’s cut of Joel and Ethan Coen’s first feature film, originally released in 1984. The dark crime thriller takes its title from a Dashell Hammet term for the state of confusion that follows a murder. M. Emmet Walsh plays a cheap divorce detective hired to kill a Texas saloon owner’s young wife (Frances McDormand) and her bartender lover. I wasn’t a huge fan of the film (the body-disposal scene still gets to me), and most audiences won’t notice the tweaking. But the rerelease dose give another generation of filmgoers a chance to see the Coens’ film debut on the big screen. (R) —MD

Woman on Top **1/2

A summer beach novel of a movie from Venezuelan director Fina Torres. It exists mostly to showcase the unbearable lightness of being Penelope Cruz, who’s beautiful beyond the scope of conventional measuring devices and possesses gallons of that ineffable thing that usually bespeaks stardom. She plays a motion-sick cook who flees her Brazilian home and husband for a new life and a cooking show in San Francisco. Cruz is stuck in a patchy story that tries to capture the magic-food-and-sex vibe of Like Water for Chocolate and the playful sophistication of Almodovar, but can’t manage the passionate earnestness of the former or the intelligence of the latter. On the other hand, Cruz is still really hot—and the Brazilian rhythms permeating the film will keep your toe tapping while your hand stifles a yawn. —GB

Duets **

Gwyneth Paltrow is directed by her father Bruce is a ridiculously dated and cliched story of six lost souls converging in Omaha at a karaoke championship. The film purports to take us through the culture of karaoke, but it’s really an excuse for Gwyneth to revive her dad’s dead directing career. Of the actors, only Paul Giamatti passes for interesting, and the final act embraces several hideously pat Hollywood endings. One surprise, however: Gwynnie can sing, romping through “Bette Davis Eyes” with a class and poise the rest of this film sorely lacks. (R) —GB

Nurse Betty ***1/2

Neil LaBute’s latest film is a clever commentary on the abandonment of reality, the lure of fantasy, and the power of television. Betty (Reneé Zellweger) is a coffee shop waitress with a dead-end life, a philandering husband, and an addiction to soap operas. When she witnesses her husband brutally murdered by two hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock), she snaps. In the perfect blurring of TV fantasy and reality, she is convinced she’s Nurse Betty, a character from her favorite soap opera, and she sets out to find her true love, the soap opera’s handsome heart surgeon. With shades of The Truman Show and Don Quixote, this parable offers an interesting take on “people with no lives watching people with fake lives.” (R) —MD

The Way of the Gun ***1/2

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) creates a delicious array of smart, resourceful characters in this uptempo modern Western. Parker (Ryan Philippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro) concoct a plan to kidnap the surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis) for the child of an organized-crime bagman and ransom her for $15 million. The plot thickens as the antiheroes try to stay away from old-time thug Sarno (James Caan) and two bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt). The script plows through a few momentary slows, while Philippe and Caan stand out in a picture filled with magnetic performances. There’s a little French New Wave, a little Tarantino, and a lot of McQuarrie in an exciting feature debut. —GB

Bait ***

Jamie Foxx and director Antoine Fuqua deliver a by-the-numbers action-comedy that aims low and hits its target. He plays an ex-con who learns a secret about some missing gold shortly before he’s released. He unwittingly has a microchip implanted in his jaw, enabling a Treasury Dept. agent (David Morse) to follow him while waiting for a crazy criminal guy to try to get the gold. Foxx, who showed his dramatic chops in Any Given Sunday, handles both the comedic and dramatic sides of a schizophrenic script with skill, and Doug Hutchison is unconventionally creepy as the villain. It won’t make you think and it won’t make you applaud, but you’ll get the easy laughs and the big explosions you paid for. —GB

Almost Famous ***

Salt Laker Patrick Fugit makes an impressive film debut as a teenager accompanying a rock band on a cross-country tour for an article in Rolling Stone. The premise of Cameron Crowe’s film may sound far-fetched, but the film succeeds thanks to a good script and solid performances from a cast that includes Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Billy Crudup. An interesting look at life in a mid-level rock band, the film is really about artistic integrity and the importance of family in whatever form it takes. (R) —MD

The Watcher *1/2

Against all logic and human decency, Keanu Reeves stars as the most unconvincing serial killer since Andrew Cunanan. Reeves’ off-the-charts bad performance kills any hope for this ultrageneric thriller featuring James Spader as the requisite burnt-out lawman chasing redemption in the form of Keanu, who strangles his pretty female victims and talks like the skater version of Cary Grant. From the illogical sight of Marisa Tomei as a psychologist to the bizarrely ineffective booby traps and puzzle-clues set by Keanu, this picture begs to be sent quickly to video and expunged from moviegoers’ long-suffering minds. (R) —GB

Highlander: Endgame *1/2

One more attempt to wring another few million dollars out of the most unlikely of science fiction franchises. Christopher Lambert is joined by Adrian Paul, the star of the syndicated TV series, and they basically run around learning about other immortals, with no clear objective or object to be saved. The requisite action and confusing camera work are here, but there’s little humor and even less self-awareness. Lambert and Paul take their silly roles incredibly seriously, which makes the film even less fun than living forever. (R) —GB

Act, I mean. That second group includes most movie stars—people like Sean Connery and Melanie Griffith, people who look attractive on film but never become more than Brad-Pitt-playing-a-police-detective or Goldie-Hawn-playing-something-stupid. They represent archetypes—namely themselves, the movie stars we’re all supposed to wish we were—and that’s why we like to watch them.

Members of that first group—actors who can act—don’t just happen. They must be in the proper situation, surrounded by a director and a writer and co-stars whose talents are comparable and complementary, in order to succeed. When properly buttressed, acting becomes an art. Much more often, it’s just silly, a self-referential prop to dramatic art.

Take Michael McKean, a member of the outstanding ensemble cast in director Christopher Guest’s Best in Show. McKean has been everything from Lenny on Happy Days to the nouveau Brady Bunch’s film nemesis to Stefan Vanderhoof, a doting bisexual dog owner whose Shih-Tzu might just win the blue ribbon at the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show.

McKean, like the rest of the cast, is given free rein by Guest—Jamie Lee Curtis’ husband, the writer and star of This Is Spinal Tap and the writer-director-star of Waiting for Guffman. With an unrehearsed, unscripted feel that can’t often be faked, McKean—and this is TV’s Lenny, remember—comes across as a dynamite comic actor with a deadpan comic touch shared by every other member of the cast. It all comes down to this: Once you buy into Guest’s style and sense of humor, you’ll find his films as funny as anything on the market.

Guest’s camera never blinks. It rarely moves, either. He isn’t terribly interested in the visual aspect of directing. He’s into actors and people, to the exclusion of almost everything else. He’s at his best while working in Best in Show’s faux-documentary style, the better to elicit the rambling monologues that define his films.

A large percentage of his newest effort is loosely scripted at best, with the actors’ improvisational talents allowed to run free. The style isn’t his alone—it was used to similar effect in last year’s Drop Dead Gorgeous. But in his last two films, Guest is showing an uncanny knack for gentle satire, an art that’s very hard for Hollywood types to understand.

The story follows a disparate group of dog-owners preparing for the big show in Philadelphia. There’s Gerry (indefatigable nerd Eugene Levy, who also co-wrote) and Cookie (Catherine O’Hara playing a role tailor-made for Jan Hooks), a poor Florida couple wrapped up in the care of their Norwich terrier, Winky; Hamilton (Michael Hitchcock) and Meg Swan (Parker Posey, the best of the bunch) as a hysterical J. Crew-wearing lawyer couple who take their Weimaraner to the shrink because it saw them having sex; Stefan (McKean) and Scott (John Michael Higgins, also tremendous), the caricaturish gay couple who can’t resist sniping at Sherri (Jennifer Coolidge), a poodle-loving trophy wife, and her handler, Christy (Jane Lynch).

Guest, who plays a North Carolina fisherman named Harlan Pepper, shows his genius is in the tiny, completely unmentioned details of his film, like the braces worn by comically image-conscious Meg and Hamilton, or the way Cookie wears her Hello-My-Name-Is tag on her chest, not her blouse. Guest has a sweet sentimentality toward his characters, seen in touches like Gerry’s sad-sack worry over Cookie’s previous boyfriends, who pop up everywhere like weeds. The rest of the film’s success lies with the actors, who simply take over.

Special mention must be made of Fred Willard, the veteran comic who has spent recent years as Jay Leno’s go-to guy for any dumb skit the boys at The Tonight Show could whip out in an afternoon. Willard gives the scene-chewing performance of his life as Buck Laughlin, the goofily sardonic color commentator on the dog show’s television broadcast. Among others, his riff about a bloodhound improving his chance to win by wearing a deerstalker hat and smoking a pipe brings down the house.

This movie isn’t about dogs, obviously. The satirical human targets in Best in Show are huge, and Guest has no problem hitting them. But the common theme in his work is poking good-natured fun at those who take themselves too seriously. Sure, Guest is too hip for the room, but he’s also generous and caring to the rubes he and his actors create.

The film goes exactly where we want it to, and by the final verdict, we’re dying to know who wins. And that may be Guest’s greatest triumph: In what’s likely to turn out to be the year’s best comedy, he has created a little genuine suspense as well. Blue ribbons all around.

Best in Show (PG-13) HHHH Directed by Christopher Guest. Starring Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey.

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About The Author

Greg Beacham

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