Almost Best in Show

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Christopher Moynihan as Brian Chubb, Harry Shearer as Victor Allan Miller, Catherine O’Hara as Marilyn Hack and Parker Posey as Callie Webb in director Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration.

Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara) is a minor movie player, now edging even closer to the margin as she toils in the not entirely promising indie production of Home for Purim, a 1940s period piece, set in the South in which she plays a terminally ill mother awaiting the return of her long-estranged daughter for that most obscure of Jewish holidays. One day, though, one of the crew informs her that she's been mentioned for an Oscar nomination on one of the show biz blogs.

This represents a last flicker of hope for Hack. And for the film. Pretty soon producer, publicist, the whole cast, are launching campaigns for other actors and for the movie itself. And director Christopher Guest, who with Eugene Levy co-wrote the heavily improvised script, has launched another of his wee, wry curiously compassionate comedies. It may not be quite as funny as their masterpiece, Best in Show, but it is, I think, superior in energy, characterizations and narrative strength to Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind.

The true subject of all these movies is the innocence of the obsessional ego, the ability of people caught in the grips of an idea they think is grand (and everyone else thinks is stupid) to drive everything else out of their heads as they pursue their goofy dreams. Mainly they do this without raising their voices, without pitching fits, without showing the slightest evidence that they are lacking in what the rest of us are pleased to call normalcy. Take Harry Shearer's Victor Allan Miller. He's played Shakespeare (albeit in repertory's more obscure regions), but his fame rests on his portrayal of a wiener in a series of hot dog commercials. A nomination would transform his life, but he shows his desperation only to his cruelly indifferent manager (the aforementioned Levy). The rest of the time Miller's a model of modesty and good nature. Or consider Guest himself, playing Purim's director. He appears to be a serious and dedicated artist. But he will compromise his "vision" when anyone — actor, producer, studio chief, cameraman — challenges his ideas and threatens his low-budget schedule. As for Marilyn Hack, she plays the solid pro, pretending a sort of gracious indifference to the completely manufactured buzz surrounding her. But by the end of the film she has undergone a complete makeover and is, alas, drinking heavily.

Do they know — these dear, oddly believable creatures — that all is sham and vanity, that even though the studio insists on changing the title of their film to a more central American holiday (Home for Thanksgiving) that their cause is hopeless? You'd think they would if they examined the film's key dramatic premise (that long-lost daughter — Parker Posey — is bringing her lesbian lover home to the family). You'd think they might see through the hype, since largely represented by the divinely clueless hosts of a syndicated Entertainment Tonight TV show (Fred Willard and Jane Lynch).

But no, that cannot be. They must not, allow reality to intrude on their dreams. Guest's characters are often exotics — dog fanciers, show folks — but despite their outré occupations and preoccupations they are, at heart, just the rest of us, pursuing, say, a promotion or a new job or a teasing, out-of-reach lover; pretending not to care, pretending not to heed the gnawing in their vitals, but haplessly imprisoned by their hopeless dreams.

You have to admire the economy of Guest's work, his ability to work on a small scale and his deadpan skill at keeping his actors on the emotional reservation — calmly facing down emotional chaos. But what is really terrific about his quietly insinuating work — especially as it flies in the face of Borat's moment — is its (dare I say it?) compassion. He doesn't have or encourage contempt for his people. He loves them in the manner that Preston Sturges once loved his improbable dreamers — without sentimentalizing them but without forgetting that like all of us their misplaced passions are really kinda funny. And infinitely forgivable.