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Monday, November 30, 2009

Old Dogs

For Old Dogs like me, the movie Old Dogs is just one more reminder that I’m falling apart and everything I held dear is an allusion. I treasured my memories of Vinnie Barbarino and Mork as they were in the ‘70s, captivating my generation with catchphrases like “Wh--?” and “Nanu Nanu.” Now, the new film opens with credits that show stars Robin Williams and John Travolta in photographs from that era and we watch as they move from their “Welcome Back, Kotter” and “Mork and Mindy” days through the Mrs. Doubtfire and Hairspray era to how they look today. Personally, I think Travolta looked better in a fat suit and a dress than he does au natural if for no other reason than as a woman he wears a credible wig and not that distracting dead raccoon he will never admit is a toupee.  Watching him on-screen I couldn’t help but think that the Old Dogs of the title might well be referring to the plethora of hairpieces he keeps under lock and key.

I suppose we are expected to speak reverentially about Travolta since he is still recovering from the death of his son, Jett, but I don’t think it excuses his lazy performance in Old Dogs, especially since this was filmed long before Jett’s demise. As a matter of fact, this tragedy of a comedy has sat on the shelf for well over a year, perhaps a sign that someone at the studio which released it believed it might be kindest to put these Old Dogs out of their misery (and ours), but we aren’t that lucky. As long as there is a penny to be made Disney will release it ~ or in this case let it escape on an unsuspecting public.

In Old Dogs, Travolta plays Charlie, an investment guru, who has been business partners with Williams’ Dan for over thirty years. Obviously, this is Williams’ movie as the plot hinges on his relationship with the twin son and daughter he discovers he fathered after a memorable one-night stand in Miami seven years ago. That shouldn’t mean that Travolta can just take a backseat in the acting department, but he is so low key here that the sets outshine him. That might be the mistake of director Walt Becker (Wild Hogs), who seems to have put his focus on Williams and the kids, played by Connor Rayburn (tv’s “According to Jim”) and debuting Ella Bleu Travolta (yep, John and Kelly Preston’s kid). Ironically, it is the younger Travolta who radiates a screen presence as she comes to accept and then love her newfound Dad. Ella is a natural as Emily, the shy half of the twins, whose biggest dream is to play “princess” with her father. Indeed, the film’s most heartwarming scene involves just that, though it suffers that scripters David Diamond and David Weissman (Minutemen) felt it necessary to inject an insipid (and totally unrealistic) plot device about Dan’s need for robotic assistance before he can grant such a simple request from the girl. Once this silly bit is past both Williams and the wee Travolta shine. Somehow seeing Robin Williams dressed in a king costume and enjoying a tea party with a seven year old seems a natural setting for his brand of comedy.

What doesn’t seem natural is a whole contrived situation in which Charlie and Dan are involved in courting a Japanese company for a high-powered business venture. The constant bowing and scraping to find the humor in Japanese culture is just not funny. The film would have been better just sticking to the family foolishness and let Dan and Charlie act idiotic as they do in some (too) brief scenes with Camp Director Matt Dillon (Armored) when the kids go on a scouting excursion with the tightly wound Dillon and his unhinged henchman an uncredited Justin Long; Taking Chances). Why this section of the movie seems truncated is beyond me, but it is also peculiar that bits featuring the marvelous Amy Sedaris (Jennifer's Body) and Rita Wilson (My Life in Ruins) go nowhere. Wilson arrives early in the film as the cross-eyed best friend of the twins’ mother, Vicki (aka Mrs. Travolta in real-life, Kelly Preston; Struck). Why she is cross-eyed is never explained. Neither is why she was introduced as a character since she has nothing do except smile and look cock-eyed in a single scene. Ditto Sedaris, who has only two or three lines, shrieking from a balcony. Meanwhile, the long-dead Bernie Mac (in his last role) leaves behind a limp legacy as a friend of Dan’s named Lunchbox Jimmy. He has a handful of more lines than the ladies but his presence seems trivial. So does an odd appearance by Ann Margaret (All's Faire in Love) in a throwaway role that could be played by an extra. At least she has the opportunity to show off the fact that she’s still a good looking dame at 68.

Old Dogs relies mostly on repetitive poop jokes, golf ball to the crotch scenes, and even an uncomfortable bit with Williams in a public restroom watching little Zach (Rayburn) take a dump. Listening to a seven year old fart is about the high (-class) point of the movie.

Basically, this whole project seems like a vanity affair slapped together by the Travoltas to showcase their daughter. Besides Ella Bleu, John’s sister Margaret and his brother Sam also have bit parts, though neither is given anything to do, so they are in good company with the other stars making cameo appearances. As for Seth Green (tv’s “Robot Chicken”), the pint-sized comic plays well off the older duo as their third-in-command at the agency. He steals all of his scenes without needing to try, though his best scenes aren’t with Williams or Travolta but with a 600-pound gorilla, a part of the (supposed) Burlington, Vermont, zoo. I’d love to know where this (non-existent) zoo has been hiding for the past two decades or so I’ve lived here because I’d like to go sometime. It has to be a lot more entertaining than another two hours of Old Dogs.

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