Pooches and Their Pamperers … Loved Björk, Not von Trier

Pooches and Their Pamperers

Best in Show , a riotous soufflé written and directed by Christopher Guest, the clever man who made This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman unexpected comedy classics, uses the same “mockumentary” style. Only this time he presents a savage look at the eccentric world of dog shows that has left me howling.

Tension mounts as zany dog lovers arrive to compete in the annual Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show in Philadelphia, with their whisker trimmers, Kibbles ‘n’ Bits, kinky obedience trainers, hair ribbons and liver treats in tow. Profiled by Mr. Guest’s cruel candid cameras and played by his wacky repertory troupe, they are loaded with improvisational ideas and ready for bear.

From Illinois, neurotic yuppies Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) have a Weimaraner named Beatrice who suffers from total depression after watching them having sex doggie-style. They met in a Starbucks, talk in labels (“She made poopie in your Orvis shoes”) and enjoy intimate evenings reading J. Crew catalogs. From Fern City, Fla., nerdy Gerry Fleck and his oversexed wife Cookie (Eugene Levy, who co-wrote the screenplay, and Catherine O’Hara) sing “God Loves a Terrier” to their Norwich terrier, Winky. Pine Nut, N.C., bait-and-tackle-store owner and amateur ventriloquist Harlan Pepper (played by director Guest) is convinced his bloodhound Hubert can talk. Scott and Stefan (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean), a couple of flaming fairies from Tribeca, bring a flamboyant wardrobe and a preening, perfumed Shih Tzu named Agnes. Trashy bubble-brained gold digger Sherri Ann (Jennifer Coolidge), married to an ancient, catatonic, wheelchair-bound billionaire fossil, brings along her champion poodle, Rhapsody in White, and her lesbian trainer girlfriend, who runs a “cutting-edge kennel.”

While they face the cameras for interviews, refreshingly unaware that they are all totally insane, the manager of the Taft Hotel (Ed Begley Jr.) takes us on a tour of the storage room and displays the cleaning fluids, odor eliminators and carpet protectors he stocks to deal with hygienic emergencies. Meanwhile, the palpable behind-the-scenes excitement is upstaged by the surreal observations of a raunchy television announcer (brilliantly played by deadpan comic Fred Willard), whose offhand comments are like Joe Garagiola’s in baseball and seldom have anything to do with the event itself (“Interesting that in some countries these dogs are eaten”). He’s so dumb he thinks Columbus landed the Mayflower in Philly-“or one of the three other ones, the Nina , the Pinta , or the Santa Maria .” When the judges check the rear ends of the prize entries, he yells: “Look at that! I don’t think I could ever get used to being poked and prodded like that. I asked my proctologist, ‘Why don’t you take me out to dinner and a movie sometime?'”

Mr. Guest has a genius for performing colorful autopsies on American obsessions and phobias, and a talent for making you think everyone is making it up, unrehearsed. Dogs are always good for a laugh, but the wonderful four-legged stars assembled here are more intelligent than their owners (and sometimes just as comical), while the side-splitting, straight-faced actors expose every quirk with a relish that makes you bark for more. Best in Show does to lovers of canine pageants what Waiting for Guffman did to small-town thespians, but it’s 10 times funnier.

Loved Björk, Not von Trier

A Danish musical is already an oxymoron, but Dancer in the Dark , a dreary, dopey and pretentious piece of junk by Lars von Trier (director of the abominable Breaking the Waves ) that is now playing commercially after getting the 38th New York Film Festival off to a depressing start, is an alleged musical about a pathetic Czech factory worker who goes blind, commits a brutal murder and ends up on Death Row while everybody sings along like sandhogs in a karaoke bar. An arrogant assault on every tradition the world has come to love in the cinematic canon, it’s a desperate attempt to break new ground for the sake of being different by a man who claims to love movie musicals but has probably never seen one. The result is flat, ugly and more artificial than anything Hollywood turned out in the 1950’s, and you don’t even go away humming.

The centerpiece is Björk, the Icelandic pop singer with no acting experience (not much to do, I guess, in Reykjavik), who wrote the abysmal songs and plays Selma, a simple-minded but good-hearted Czech immigrant who suffers more cruel indignities than Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline . Selma has somehow landed in some godforsaken American landscape where she lives in a trailer, slaves in a gruesome tool-and-die factory that makes steel sinks, and escapes from harsh reality to a movie house that never seems to show anything but Ginger Rogers musicals.

Although Selma can’t sing or dance, and suffers from a congenital eye disease that leads to terminal blackout, she has somehow managed to land the lead in an amateur production of The Sound of Music . Go figure. Between rehearsals, where she has to be led on and off the stage by her friend and fellow millworker Kathy (played by a woefully miscast Catherine Deneuve), and double shifts at the factory, where she can’t see the machinery, she somehow manages to scrape up the money for an operation that might save her son from the blindness he’s inherited.

Selma is a role invented for Lillian Gish on the silent screen. “Everything,” as Thelma Ritter said in All About Eve , “but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.” Not to worry. The bloodhounds are coming. The money she’s hidden in a candy tin behind her ironing board is stolen by her landlord, a suicidally depressed cop driven to despair and bankruptcy, played by a wasted David Morse, an excellent American actor who looks like he’s fallen into the hands of Martians. “Kill me,” he begs. Blind and hysterical, Selma, the gentle ragamuffin who always follows directions, fires a round of bullets into her torturer and bashes his head in. Things go from rotten to worse, as Mr. von Trier shamelessly piles on every silent-movie cliché in the annals of melodrama. Selma, quite obviously, is fired from her job (what took them so long?), loses her role in The Sound of Music (the nuns chant “Climb Every Mountain” as she’s dragged away by the sheriff in handcuffs), ends up homeless and marches to the hangman’s noose in a stupefyingly overwrought finale that makes Susan Hayward’s death scene in I Want to Live seem like a model of prim restraint. You don’t know whether you should weep or laugh out loud, and at the screening I attended, most people did a little of both.

Since nothing about Dancer in the Dark is vaguely believable, it’s hard to tell when Selma shifts from reality to fantasy. In her imagination, railroad workers dance atop moving boxcars, farmers waltz with sheep. At her murder trial, she tap dances with Joel Grey while the judge and jury sing along. It’s incredibly crude and amateurish, the dialogue is as ludicrous as the plot, and the songs are unthinkable. (Perfect revenge gift for the people you hate: Send them the soundtrack.) For all the hype about revolutionizing movies, director von Trier has come up with nothing fresh. The same stylized tricks using songs to separate reality from imagination were done much better in The Singing Detective and Herbert Ross’ Pennies from Heaven . This movie is, by contrast, chaotic and clumsily blocked. Much of it was shot with a camera mounted above the director’s head and strapped to his back. It moves when his body does, spinning around in circles until you are faint with nausea. We go to movies for a variety of reasons, but motion sickness is not one of them.

The only redeeming virtue here is Björk. A singing sensation since the age of 11, she has no training as an actress, which gives the film a welcome hint of naturalism it lacks everywhere else. Her songs are funeral dirges, sung in a slow, precise Baby Snooks whine that grates, but her performance as a hapless waif has a suspended state of emotional isolation that connects in strange ways. Selma endures one crisis after another with squinty eyes peering from thick eyeglasses in a myopic glaze and a perpetually goofy grin on her face, until she and Björk become one entity. Her innocence is the only convincing (and appealing) thing on the screen that works. Everything else lacks form and focus.

In the movie morgue, Dancer in the Dark arrives D.O.A.

A Pageant Flick Short on Talent

Sally Field makes her directorial debut with Beautiful . Hold the hors d’oeuvres. Return the champagne. No cause for celebration: This synthetic first effort, which was unveiled to grim silence and massive walkouts at the Toronto Film Festival, falls into the category of So Bad It’s Awful.

If Ms. Field, a conscientious feminist, had some idea in mind about the punishing myth that women must be beautiful to succeed, it fell apart on the way to the editing lab. Minnie Driver stars as a girl named Mona who wastes her entire life trying to be a beauty queen, selfishly destroying anyone who gets in her way to a crown, any crown. Mona sabotages rival contestants, lies about every salient fact in her life, sacrifices every chance for normalcy, even turns the raising of her daughter over to her roommate Ruby, a sweet nurse who has been Mona’s loyal fan and best friend since childhood. Finally, on the eve of the Miss American Miss pageant in Long Beach, Calif., Ruby- who has acted as a rock to the self-centered Mona and pretended to be the mother of her child for years-is wrongfully sent to jail, and Mona is forced to drag the kid with her.

Focus shifts so often that one hour into the film, you still don’t know what it’s about. What begins as social commentary on the false values and superficial ideologies of the beauty business quickly crashes in a tub of suds. There’s nothing else to do but make fun of beauty contests, which is no big challenge ( Smile did it better), and by the time Mona gets her priorities straight, nobody cares. The screenplay, by Jon Bernstein, is a routine hack job. Minnie Driver is neither young nor pretty enough to play a beauty contestant, and when she finally gets a crown, we are asked to believe she’s willing to return it so her daughter will finally call her “Mommy”-a plot fabrication so phony even Sally Field couldn’t play it convincingly.

The little girl who teaches Mona the error of her ways is Hallie Kate Eisenberg, the obnoxious moppet in hundreds of TV commercials who never stops yammering. Kathleen Turner appears in an embarrassing cameo, but it doesn’t save the movie. The only sincere thing in the film is Joey Lauren Adams (a frightening Renée Zellweger look-alike) as Ruby, but she disappears from the plot just when we need her. That leaves everybody with a dull, clumsy and inconsequential flop that is no better than a routine made-for-TV Movie of the Week, and sometimes not as good.