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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hotel for Dogs

You lie down with dogs and you wake up with fleas. I think that must be Hollywood’s new catchphrase, considering all the canine movies that have been bounding into the theaters in the last several months. Marley and Me, Bolt, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, and now Hotel for Dogs. It’s not that I hate dogs, well I kind of do (but I have a good reason), it’s just that it seems like Hollywood is really pandering to the canine set out there to the detriment of pussy lovers everywhere. When is the last time there has been a nice movie made about a cat? Decades, I tell you, decades. Feline fanatics are treated like second-class citizens. The best we get is Catwoman, and that doesn’t count because it wasn’t really about a cat, just a nutcase dressed in shredded leather who thought she was a cat. As a matter of fact, after Catwoman Halle Berry should have had her Monster’s Ball Oscar taken away from her and melted down as punishment. She probably needed to be dewormed too. But I digress.

I have had a bad history with dogs, especially one in particular. The school where I taught (scary thought, isn’t it?) had a cook who spoke very little English, but enough to con me into agreeing to adopt her Saint Bernard. At the time I was single and it seemed like a good idea to have a companion in the form of some large beast around as a deterrent to possible intruders, so I looked forward to my new pal’s arrival. Maria, the cook, told me in her broken English that she and her husband would drop the dog off that evening at my condo. No problemo.

As it happened, I was fixing dinner for a dear friend of mine, William, who was at that point some awkwardly undefined kind of boyfriend. Amazingly, nearly thirty years later he still remains my most trusted and cherished friend, more like a fraternal twin than the word “friend” can encompass, our lives are so entwined even when we are separated by continents (as we are now since he lives in ~ get this ~ Baghdad). Anyway, just as I am readying dinner for my sweet William, Maria arrives with the dog, two hundred pounds of smelly matted fur and muddy haunches, illogically named Buffy. I should have known something was up when Maria dumped Buffy and disappeared in the same time most illicit drug deals are transacted. Ten minutes later, before the first course was served, I had the lower half of William’s face in an oven mitt and a crazy, possibly rabies-infected Cujo, ravaging my bathroom vanity.

Some would find it remarkable that after his needing reconstructive surgery on his jaw, and then his suing me for his hospital and medical bills, not to mention just the whole drama about will-he-or-won’t-he-need-rabies-injections, that it would bring us closer together, but weirdly, it did. For some
reason the shared relief in having a police officer put a bullet in that scary creature and then knowing that Public Health officials lopped off its head was somehow tension cleansing. Quite troubling though was the police investigation that revealed Maria’s horrible husband Juan was responsible for poor Buffy’s behavior. It seems that his idea of “discipline” whenever the dog barked was to hit the St. Bernard in the head with a baseball bat. This had gone on long enough so that the canine’s skull had been turned into sand and she was pretty much insane with pain. I had such mixed feelings, sorrow for the dog, but still a lot of rage directed at her too (you should have seen William’s face, not to mention my bathroom), but these feelings were mixed with guilt in knowing it wasn’t really her fault. Then, in the blink of an eye, my mood would swing to great satisfaction in knowing that the bastard who hurt Buffy was going to jail (even if it was only for six months). Some people should never be allowed near animals.

In Hotel for Dogs, the new movie from Nickelodeon (The Spiderwick Chronicles), the people who shouldn’t be anywhere near dogs are the animal control officers, mostly because the shelter where the stray dogs get taken have a 72 hour rule: three days and if they aren’t adopted or claimed they are put to death. Yikes!

The story centers on the exploits of two orphans, Andi (Emma Roberts; Nancy Drew) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin; tv’s "Wizards of Waverly Place"), who are living with their fifth set of foster parents in the three years since their parents’ deaths. They also happen to have a delightful little dog named Friday, who they are forced to hide from the couple who have taken them in. The foster parents, Carl (Kevin Dillon; tv’s “Entourage”) and Lois
(Lisa Kudrow; P.S. I Love You) are such self-centered and uncaring people that it is easy for Andi and Bruce to rig a basket “elevator” to lift Friday up and down their fifth floor fire escape. The problem is that Friday likes to go roaming on his own and can operate the elevator without their assistance, so it isn’t long before he is on the radar of the local animal control officers, Jake (Ajay Naidu; Righteous Kill) and Max (Eric Edelstein; The Hills Have Eyes II).

That’s when Friday and the kids go on the run and accidently come upon a terrific, if improbable, hiding place. They duck into a still furnished and fabulously designed yet oddly abandoned hotel, where they happen to find another couple of stray dogs living the good life. You can already connect
the dots and see where this is going. Well-meaning kids, lots of canines needing homes, and those pesky dog catchers in hot pursuit ~ oh, and did I mention that Bruce just happens to be a genius? It’s those fantastic inventions of his that make all the difference in this film since they really do perk up an otherwise routine story. Writers Jeff Lowell (Over Her Dead Body), Robert Schooley (Sky High) and Mark McCorkle (tv’s “Kim Possible”) come up with some very clever ways to ensure that the dogs are well-cared for even when their human friends are not around. Of course, in real life, none of these things would be remotely possible for an eight year old to rig without a ton of cash and weeks (if not months) of time, but what the hey! It’s a kids’ movie, and it’s fun.

There’s not much for Dillon and Kudrow to do but make asses of themselves in their small and unappealing roles. Roberts is a natural as she has proved in her previous work. She’s fortunate in that she was blessed with her Aunt Julia’s looks and temperament instead of her father Eric’s. Austin is a decent enough sidekick, but he is overshadowed by the addition of Troy Gentile (Drillbit
Taylor) to their gang. Gentile is an over-the-top comedian and he is the stand-out jokester of the film, 100% pure Virginia ham. The budding romantic role is played by Johnny Simmons (Evan Almighty) who fills the obviously needed part of a pet store employee with enough of a discount to provide food for the doggies and a first kiss for the innocent Miss Emma. Everybody go “Awww.”

The surprise in the cast is wonderful actor Don Cheadle (Traitor), long a favorite of mine. I’ll be honest; when I saw his name in the credits of a movie called Hotel for Dogs I thought “What the hell?” I wondered who had the blackmail photos of him because this did not seem like the kind of film he would do. As it turns out, his role as the kids’ social worker Bernie is a substantive piece which offers him the opportunity to deliver a great monologue about the meaning of family and brings weight to this whole seemingly silly adventure. It essentially brought a tear to my one good eye.

By the end of the movie I was pleased to say that I had actually put the nightmare named Buffy out of my mind for a while and was contemplating how adorable some of the canines in
Hotel for Dogs were. If I didn’t already have a house full of pussycats I would even consider getting one after all these years. But before I did, I’d let William pick it out this time, even if he is in Iraq. After all, safety first.

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