A film review by Craig J. Koban November 30, 2009



2009, PG-13, 88 mins.

Charlie: John Travolta / Dan: Robin Williams / Craig: Seth Green / Jimmy Lunchbox: Bernie Mac / Barry: Matt Dillon / Martha: Ann-Margret / Jenna: Rita Wilson / Condo woman: Amy Sedaris

Directed by Walt Becker / Written by David Diamond and David Weissman

OLD DOGS is the newest family comedy from Walt Disney Studios, but let me be the very first to offer up this warning to you all: 

Taking your children to this utterly humorless and mystifyingly dreadful film constitutes child abuse.  

No hyperbole here, folks.  You clearly do not love your children if you allow yourself to make them suffer in a darkened movie theatre for 88 minutes to endure insipid pap like this.   To call OLD DOGS "infantile" is an insult to infants. 

Outside of a large and handsome paycheck, just what the hell were the likes of John Travolta and Robin Williams thinking when signing to dotted line to appear here?  Clearly, actors of this pedigree and relative worth are not that bereft of a lucrative payday.  Do they really need the money that badly?  Travolta himself has made his share of duds and has allowed himself to slumber through overwrought and disagreeable performances, but his comedic work here hits an all-time low for desperation and inspiration: they are times when he is literally reduced to a blubbering, monosyllabic idiot in the film.  

And as for Robin Williams - whom in the past has demonstrated that he is capable of being one of the most uproarious performers of the last 30 years – he manages to shed away all of his sharp comic instincts here by looking completely bewildered in most scenes.  You know you are in serious trouble when you have strong screen funnymen like Williams that is being upstaged for would-be laughs by cutaway shots to funny reactions from a dog.   

I will say this: At least that canine was not phoning in its performance as badly as the film’s two human leads. 

In the film’s pathetic excuse for a story Charlie (Travolta, never once using his charm or charisma to proper effect) and Dan (Williams, looking more confused than assured) have been BFFs for a lifetime and have spawned a highly lucrative advertising business for the past 30 years.  They are just on the eve of signing the mother load of clients in the form of a rich Japanese firm when Dan discovers some shocking news: After reacquainting himself with Vicki (Mrs. Travolta herself, Kelly Preston, still looking amazingly good at 47), an old 24-hour fling he had seven years ago, he discovers that he fathered with her fraternal twins named Zach and Emily (Zach Connor Rayburn and Ella Bleu Travolta, the latter being daughter to Preston and John).  Through a series of events I will not even dignify with an explanation, Vicki decides that she must leave her kids with their very estranged father while she serves two weeks in the slammer.  This woman is clearly in the realm of convenient movie make-believe more than she is a believable character, seeing as she has absolutely no other human ties other than a man she had sex with years ago.  Of course, if she had friends, she could have left the kids with them, but then we would not have a movie here. 

Anyhoo’, Vicki heads to prison and leaves her loved ones with Dan, whom has absolutely zero qualifications to look after children.  In order to help him through this difficult ordeal, he pleads with Charlie to ensure that the children are looked after and are given back to Vicki in one piece.  They also have to balance watching the children with the stress of attempting to close a deal with the aforementioned Japanese firm, a goal that they have been building up to for decades.  Predictably, Dan and Charlie are horrendously inept when it comes to catering to the needs of Zach and Emily, which leads to mind-numbingly routine scenes where they engage in activities such as camping out, visiting the zoo, going to parks, playing games, and so forth.  Even more predictable is the trajectory of the film’s story, where the luckless Dan and Charlie – initially loathing their times with the kids – grow to discover how much Zach and Emily change their lives for the better, so much to the point where they begin to learn the true meaning of life and family. 

How completely exhausted it this premise, you may ask?  Considerably.  Have we not seen countless films before where the ill-fated boomer learns that being a man and dealing with responsibilities is what true fatherhood is all about?  C’mon!  As hackneyed and lame brained as the whole reluctant fatherhood premise is, I would say that OLD DOG’S most unappealing and borderline offensive aspect is how it tries to cram in moments of would-be sentiment and dramatic poignancy within the film’s shrill and exasperatingly dimwitted comedy.  Here is a dopey and terminally unfunny farce that involves scenes that include, in random order, dog urine, feces being smeared on faces, flatulence, Japanese – and American – businessmen being hit in the gonads with flying golf balls and clubs, people being physically distorted to hideous degrees from improper use of medication, and a woman having both of her hands slammed by a car trunk lid.  I’m sorry, but you cannot bombard audiences with scene after scene of puerile, dead-on-arrival sight gags and then expect them for one single minute to emotionally buy into the dramatic moments of the film.  Note to filmmakers: You can’t have jokes about human fecal matter and bodily fluids combined with serious, introspective moments of characters “growing” as people.  It's one or the other.   

Oh…let’s go back to that one scene where a woman (Rita Wilson) gets her hands slammed into the car trunk.  This typifies the film’s entire overwrought and desperate attempts to score laughs.  Firstly, this scene is not funny because it’s impossible: two hands being hit a sharp trunk lid would be reduced to bloody stumps, not to mention that no trunk lid would shut perfectly over the hands, leading to Dan trying to force the lid open to free the woman’s hands.  Even less funny is how manically broadly Wilson plays pain for cheap laughs; she screams, gyrates her body, and crosses her eyes to suggest agony, which is all hammered home by a gag-inducing musical score that goes out of its way to shout out, “Look, this part is hysterical!”  I’m not sure what is more unpardonable: when physical gags are tasteless and inappropriate or when they are simply not funny at all because of the erratically overplayed sensibilities of the stars involved?  Watching Wilson degrade herself as a performer during this moment was limitlessly squirm inducing.  I felt both sorry and ashamed for her. 

As for Travolta and Williams, I have much less pity and whole hell of a lot more shameful condemnation for them – at least Wilson was wise enough to limit her screen time to a tolerable and less career killing minimum.  What evil and conniving hobgoblin stormed the set and robbed Travolta and Williams of all of their finer instincts as actors?  Have they no self-respect anymore?  If you want to see a multiple-Oscar nominated actor of films such as PULP FICTION and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER degrade himself to rock bottom, than look no further than to a scene in OLD DOGS where he has accidentally taken Dan’s medication, which leads to side effects that include chronic appetite.  He is then shown attending a support group for grieving family members where the scent of food sends him into a hyperactive and fanatical daze.  He then gorges on every food item at the table, blaring out lines with apple-sized portions in his mouth to the shocked reactions of spectators.  Williams’ Dan fares no better, seeing as he has taken drugs that have drastically warped his depth perception before playing golf, which leads to juvenile gags involving him missing shots, hitting people with his clubs, and so forth.  You can sense the sheer embarrassment on Williams’ face throughout.  I can understand Travolta making incalculable missteps trying to get chuckles, but when Williams swings for the rafters so determinedly here and strikes out every time, you are really left worried as to whether he has completely fallen off the radar of the great screen comedians.   

All of this, I guess, should come as no surprise, seeing as OLD DOGS was directed by Walt Becker, who also directed Travolta in his second worst comedic performance of his career – behind this one – in WILD HOGS, which in hindsight achieves a relative miracle for being funnier than OLD DOGS (keep in mind, I gave HOGS a one star review).   Becker displays not one iota of understanding for what makes comedy funny: true gigglefests often perceptively understand that playing things straight and not trying to force laughs often generates the best laughs.  Everything in OLD DOGS is sledge hammered home, whether it be the extraordinarily over-the-top and unrestrained performances, the film’s wildly obtrusive soundtrack, or even Becker’s annoying penchant for editing the footage for maximum, attention deficit disorder effect, which seems like a distressed attempt to use style to help conceal the lack of true, spirited guffaws in the film.  That, and – yes – the film is a relative assemble line of witless, moronic, and slothfully conceived pratfalls and gags (when will films realize, for example, that using the theme from CHARIOTS OF FIRE for a gag was funny 25 years freakin' ago?).   

Final note: the late Bernie Mac made his final film appearance playing a puppeteer that manages to hook up a suit to Dan so that he can be controlled by a computer in order to impress his new daughter.  The most mournful legacy of OLD DOGS is that this is the biggest WTF moment in recent screen memory and that Mac had to have this film appear on his IMDB resume as his last effort.  This film is a dog that could have liberated from a theatrical release by being humanely euthanized to the wall of shame of the direct-to-video shelf at your local Blockbuster.  It is that horrible. 

  H O M E