The Lord of Losers

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His go to eleven: Guest as Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel

When he was a child living in Manhattan while his father worked for the United Nations, the boy who was to become Britain's Fifth Baron Haden-Guest of Saling passed his happiest hours staring out his apartment window at the passing parade. He would imitate the funny walks he saw, improvise accents he imagined might match them.

Luckily, the lad did not grow up to be a titled toff. He went into show biz as plain, hard-working Christopher Guest, married Jamie Lee Curtis and found a way to stay in touch with his inner kid. He may be a more reserved figure now, but he's still cruelly observant, yet curiously compassionate, especially if you happen to be someone with a small gift and large ambitions. "I'm definitely drawn to lack of talent," says Guest.

There is one major difference between the boy who was and the writer-director who is. He has now found a crew of similarly skewed comic co-conspirators and perfected an improvisational technique that permits him to explore — with the sweetest, deadest pan — that place where our visions of glory ought to die for lack of nourishment but somehow survive on the crumbs of hope that drop from the celebrity culture's groaning board.

Guest, 52, is the director, cowriter and costar of "Best in Show," third in a series of "mockumentaries" (a term he thinks is deplorably glib) that he has made about people who are losing but smiling because they love the game. In this case their eyes are fixed on the top prize in the Mayflower Dog Show. You wouldn't call them a statistically accurate cross section of American life. How many of us, after all, are literally born with two left feet, as is cowriter Eugene Levy's character, co-owner of a cool little Norwich terrier? Few of us want to win anything as badly as do Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock's yuppie couple who have reduced their weimaraner to a state of clinical depression. You could also argue that gay couples are over-represented in this slice of life.

But, in the end, who's counting? You have to go with Guest's erratic flow. And you have to admire his unique way of making a picture. He and Levy did not write a script. They outlined a narrative, sketched in some characters and then invited their actors to improvise within those broad parameters. There were no rehearsals. Guest shot everything they did, then spent eight months editing the results into this sharp and shapely movie.

Among the happiest of his controlled skids is Fred Willard as Buck Laughlin, a supremely confident, supremely clueless TV commentator filling time with proctologist jokes, making awful wordplay when the shih tzu appears. He's the outsider trying fecklessly to gain a purchase on a closed world. He is also, one suspects, one of Guest's inner voices, an assertion of the reality principle saved from contempt by its self-satirizing edge.

Not that Guest would ever admit to such a subversive agenda. He will own up only to "refining" a technique he first employed as the cowriter and one of the stars of "This Is Spinal Tap," that perfect satire about a heavy metal band on the treadmill to oblivion, which is presently enjoying a welcome rerelease and a new DVD version. He is also the force behind "Waiting for Guffman," in which he plays Corky St. Clair, a small-town hairdresser who deludes himself into believing that the historical pageant he has directed may be Broadway-bound.

These movies, like "Best in Show," are about people lost in their banal dreams, and their appeal depends on not calling attention to their silliness, on permitting them to maintain their premises. This is something Guest is good at. He says the idea for his new film arose at a dog park where he took his own pooches. He liked the "very low-key nice people" but noticed that their discussions about dogs "sounded like they were about children."

This struck him as funny, and he spent a year visiting dog shows. The director — who appears in his film as a bloodhound owner who really wants to be a ventriloquist — is also into technique. "In the last 10 years," he says, "film has become very unspontaneous, whether it's using digital technology or being very storyboarded. This is the other end of the spectrum. Yes, it is just people talking, but that is just as exciting to me as a big wave."

There's a paradox there. His movies are no more stimulating visually than the cable docs they ape. Their sophistication comes from somewhere else. But they get under your skin — OK, we'll skip the dog-with-fleas joke — and make you think about something most movies have forgotten: the ineluctability of American innocence. Odd that it takes a sardonic nobleman to remind us of that. Odd but exhilarating.