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Some subjects are too absurd to satirize. Actor-writer-director Christopher Guest attempts to lampoon one of them in Best in Show, a mockumentary about a purebred dog competition. Anyone who has ever watched television coverage of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show knows that no amount of spoofing, however inspired, could possibly equal the ridiculousness of its human participants—the hysterical breeders, the fussbudget groomers, the pseudo-aristocratic judges—or the Dickensian pathos of the overtrained, captive canine contestants.

Guest made his mark playing lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel in Rob Reiner’s classic rockumentary parody, This Is Spi¬nal Tap, and, three years ago, wrote and directed the faux documentary Waiting for Guffman, in which he starred as Corky St. Clair, an effete Manhattan stage director hired to helm a hick-town musical pageant. He’s reassembled key members of the Guffman cast for Best in Show, but the flimsy result, although tolerably amusing, indicates that it’s time for him to try his hand at another genre. The film’s targets are too obvious and familiar, and the performers, who improvised much of their dialogue, aren’t nearly as funny as they think they are.

Best in Show chronicles the fictitious Mayflower Dog Show, from the contestants’ feverish preparations through the selection of the competition’s champion. The opening scene, in which neurotic Illinois yuppie lawyers Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) take their Weimaraner, Beatrice, to a dog psychiatrist, typifies Guest’s and co-scripter Eugene Levy’s reliance on hand-me-down humor. Pooch shrinks have been movie and sitcom stock figures for decades, but the screenwriters feel no obligation to reinvigorate this wheezy stereotype. The nelly jokes that inform the scenes featuring another set of competitors—Manhattan dog handler Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins), his hairdresser lover, Stefan Vanderhoof (Michael McKean), and their Shih Tzu, Miss Agnes—are even staler. Buffoonish Florida menswear salesman Gerry Fleck (Levy, outfitted with hideous teeth and unmatched feet), his reformed-slut wife, Cookie (Catherine O’Hara), and Winky, their Norwich terrier, are depicted with smirking condescension. The movie’s most original invention is pneumatic Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), the Anna Nicole Smith-like young spouse of a geriatric millionaire, who, along with her standard poodle, Rhapsody in White, is handled by mannish trainer Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch), an Anne Heche look-alike.

Guest himself contributes a surprisingly generous, subdued performance as Harlan Pepper, a laconic North Carolina fishing-shop owner who enters his bloodhound, Hubert, in the show. His rustic underplaying offers a welcome respite from the mugging of the other principals, as does Ed Begley Jr.’s cameo as the unflappable manager of a hotel where the owners and their dogs are housed. Fred Willard earns some guffaws as a lewd, clueless television commentator covering the show—three guesses how he pronounces “Shih Tzu”—although he’s played similar characters so often in the past, notably the sidekick on Norman Lear’s talk-show parody, Fernwood 2-Night, that his performance, like so much of Best in Show, feels recycled.

However lightweight and stale, Guest’s comedy moves along briskly and contains a sprinkling of laugh-out-loud jokes, including Rhapsody in White’s outlandish grooming—reminiscent of Diana Ross’ coiffure for her abortive Supremes reunion tour—and Stefan’s tart reaction when a television camera accidentally reveals that Sherri and Christy have become lovers. But Best in Show is too trifling to be regarded as more than a middling time-killer.

I was assigned Best in Show because I’m the only dog owner—a term now deemed politically incorrect—on this paper’s movie reviewing staff. In one of life’s crueler ironies, last week I lost my canine companion, Grace, who has made several appearances in this column over the past 16 years. Goodbye, my friend.

The subject of dogs serves as an apt transition to Robert Altman’s disastrous Dr. T and the Women. In his half-century directorial career, Altman has come up with only one successful comedy, M*A*S*H, based on Ring Lardner Jr.’s fail-safe Oscar-winning screenplay. Left to his own devices, the filmmaker has unleashed a series of sour, mirthless misfires, including A Perfect Couple, A Wedding, Popeye, Beyond Therapy, and Ready to Wear. (Two additional Altman putative comedies, H.E.A.L.T.H. and O.C. & Stiggs, were deemed so hopeless that studios refused to release them and, after years of cold storage, fobbed them off on premium cable channels.)

Although sometimes effective when applied to dramas (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Short Cuts), Altman’s flaccid directorial style is too muzzy for comedy. His languid tracking shots, overlapping dialogue, and laissez-faire indulgence of actors lack the precision essential for generating laughter. His latest effort, Dr. T and the Women, piddles along for over two hours without achieving focus or thrust. The preview audience I saw it with exited the theater in a stuporous funk.

Richard Gere stars as Dr. Sullivan Travis, a successful Dallas society gynecologist who regards women as “sacred” but doesn’t really understand them. While his cheerleader daughter, Dee Dee (Kate Hudson), makes plans for her wedding, his adored wife, Kate (Farrah Fawcett), unexpectedly regresses to a childlike state. Complicating matters, his other daughter, Conspiracy Museum docent Connie (Tara Reid), suspects that something’s going on between Dee Dee and her maid of honor, Marilyn (Liv Tyler), and his champagne-swilling sister-in-law, Peggy (Laura Dern), turns up with her brood of little girls. Flustered by the chaos of his collapsing henhouse, Dr. T strikes up an extramarital relationship—his first ever—with Bree (Helen Hunt), the new golf pro at his country club.

Altman and screenwriter Anne Rapp intersperse glimpses of Dr. T’s troubled personal life with frenetic sequences in his office. For reasons that neither bothers to clarify, his waiting room teems with dozens of snippy women vying for his professional services. (Apparently, Dr. T doesn’t believe in appointment books.) In these scenes, the filmmaker’s lauded formal control deserts him; the layered conversations are cacophonously incoherent, and the images appear randomly spliced together. The footage devoted to Dee Dee’s impending nuptials and the lavish ceremony itself rehashes material from Altman’s 1978 flop, A Wedding. Dr. T and Bree’s evolving relationship is sluggishly portrayed; their steak-and-wine seduction dinner seems to last longer onscreen than a similar episode would take in real life.

Rapp’s notion of comedy writing consists of coming up with a flat joke and repeating it. She recycles a dim jape about a Tiffany’s salesperson named Tiffany three times in a single scene, and thrice Bree is asked if she spells her name “like the cheese.” The opening sequence, in which an elderly woman in a feathered hat prattles away while Dr. T inserts his speculum, parallels his subsequent examination of a cigarette-smoking socialite. In four or five episodes—I lost count—Dr. T and his male buddies go hunting and complain about the sandwiches they’ve brought.

Sitting through this Möbius strip of a movie becomes so tiresome that one begins spotting things that, in a livelier film, would pass unnoticed, like the grating pitch of Hunt’s nasal voice, the Benjamin Franklin-like expanse of her forehead, and the evidence that comely Tyler has been spending too much time at the dessert table. Gere’s sly, befuddled Dr. T provides a tonic relief from the frenzy surrounding him, as does Fawcett’s restraint as the addled Kate, a role that uncomfortably echoes her infamous flummoxed appearance on David Letterman’s show. Shelley Long is saddled with the demeaning role of Dr. T’s sex-starved head nurse. The scene in which she strips and forces herself on her boss recalls the repellent moment in Altman’s 1970 Brewster McCloud when Jennifer Salt, sexually rejected by Bud Cort, masturbates to relieve her frustration.

After backing himself into a narrative corner, Altman liberates Dr. T through the agency of an apocalyptic tornado featuring the cheesiest special effects since Ed Wood’s heyday, and ends the film with a clinically graphic depiction of a woman bearing a baby boy. No doubt, feminists will decry this sequence as Altman’s assertion of male supremacy, but viewers intent on decoding gender issues in this botched film clearly have too much time on their hands. The only illumination I experienced while yawning through Dr. T and the Women is that, unlike penises, vaginas are not inherently funny. CP