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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

MOVIE REVIEW
Old Dogs

World's Uneasiest Dads, Holding On For Dear Life


Laughing uncomfortably: John Travolta as Charlie and Robin Williams as Dan, in Walt Becker's comedy "Old Dogs", which opened today.   
Ron Phillips/Disney

By Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A spectacular disaster of a movie, Walt Becker's "Old Dogs", starring John Travolta and Robin Williams follows the old cynical Hollywood formula of frolic, detour and mindless distraction.  Yet that isn't its biggest problem.  "Old Dogs" was shot in the summer of 2007, a year before the shocking death of Bernie Mac and about a year and a half prior to the abrupt passing in January of Mr. Travolta’s son Jett.  These tragedies hover nervously over Mr. Becker's film, which without them would be a film sufficiently racially and sexually offensive -- but with them is both offensive and even more awkward, wrapped in the banner of a PG rating, making "Old Dogs" uncomfortable to watch at times.

For example, there's the momentary episode of blackface played for laughs, achieved via a tanning salon for one character who later in a conversation invokes Mantan (Moreland), a famous black actor during America's shameful era of minstrel shows in the early 1930 and 40s.  (In fairness it's a moment leavened ala "Tropic Thunder" by an indignant and swift reaction from at least one black person appearing briefly here, serving to reflexively salve the film's conscience.)  Mr. Becker ("Wild Hogs" also with Mr. Travolta) may or may not mean to go the ultra-tan route but screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman do.  Then there's the obligatory subtle but endless shots of women's cleavage -- a montage of such shots here would arguably befit an R-rated sex flick than this Disney endeavor.  Little appears to be going on inside the women's heads in this film, and all the principal women appear to be hopped up on caffeine or Ritalin that isn't doing its job.

And yes, this is a comedy. 

The record will reflect that Mr. Travolta and Mr. Williams play best buddies and fellow baby boomers Charles and Dan respectively, and work at a New York City sports marketing company.  Dan has managed to get divorced twice in quick succession -- almost as quickly as the time it takes to watch this film -- and has two kids he was either too drunk or too goofy to be aware of.  Charlie is a content mid-lifer, and bachelordom has never been so good.  A dog keeps him company at his pad.  When Vicki (Kelly Preston, Mr. Travolta's off-screen wife) has to serve a two-week jail sentence ex-husband Dan agrees to take care of the kids, who generally are not his strongest suit.  Charlie however, has to play uncle at Dan's behest to keep up whatever appearances the film pretends to be orchestrating.

"Old Dogs", jam-packed with slapstick routines and Three Stooges-like nuttiness, wallows mightily in its own discomfort.  Mr. Travolta's Charlie at one point while gate crashing a funeral buffet and binge eating, gives throwaway condolences to one character and later wears a huge Joker-like grin during another bereavement scene.  When Charlie's 14-year-old dog struggles to make it to the film's end it's impossible not to think about Mr. Travolta's real-life departed 16-year-old son.  "Old Dogs" is akin to shards of glass splintering after explosion, landing every which way but the right way.  The film jumps crazily from one wacky event to another, never stopping to take a break from illogic, and isn't remotely enjoyable.

Mr. Travolta's daughter Ella Bleu makes her big screen debut here as one of Dan's kids, making this a full-fledged family affair.  (There's also Sam Travolta and Margaret Travolta as a singing waiter and hostess.)  Mr. Mac makes a cameo as a children's performer with the dubious-sounding name Jimmy Lunchbox and disappears like Keyser Soze.  There's little Mr. Mac can (or has to) do here and we barely notice his abrupt exit.

It's hardly a secret that Hollywood films have for years portrayed children negatively, and rarely are kids seen to be wiser than their parents.  This year on the big screen they have been anti-social and alien-like ("Race To Witch Mountain"), annoying ("2012"), used as props ("The Hangover"), sullen and withdrawn ("The Fantastic Mr. Fox"), but they've also been helpful and instructive ("Imagine That"), energized inspirers ("The Blind Side") and moralizers ("The Road").  Here, the kids are alright, so to speak, as a hybrid of these types but it's the adults who are made to look the most absurd, and with a cast as good as this one (see below), the most feeble attempts at comic energy are wasted in a film that is far less funny than it intends to be.


With: Seth Green, Rita Wilson, Conner Rayburn, Dax Shepherd, Luis Guzman, Matt Dillon, Ann-Margret, Justin Long, Amy Sedaris, Saburo Shimono, Laura Allen.

"Old Dogs" is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some mild rude humor.  The film's running time is one hour and 28 minutes. 

Read more movie reviews and stories from Omar here.


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