Check under most any post relating to the recently released trailer for Luc Besson’s “Dogman,” and you’ll find one, if not several responses riffing, to various degrees of enthusiasm, on the theme of “OMG, what if ‘Joker’ but with dogs?” That rhetorical question can now be answered, following this numbskulled nonsense movie’s inexplicable Venice Competition premiere, with a resounding “If only.” The bludgeoningly obvious, creatively inert, deathly dull tale of a cross-dressing misfit in a wheelchair who favors canine company over that of humans, it is scarcely fit to lap from the same water bowl as Todd Phillips’ controversial Golden Lion winner. Even those who didn’t much like “Joker” have to admit that it did not actively treat its audience as if they were so brain-dead that everyone left feeling about 30 IQ points dumber than when they went in.
Much like Terrence Malick’s marginally more accomplished “The Tree of Life,” the film starts out by classing things up with a quote. “When man is in trouble, God sends him a dog,” is an epigraph coined by Alphonse de Lamartine, a French poet and statesman who would no doubt be wondering what kind of trouble he was in for God to send him a “Dogman” if, lucky guy, he hadn’t been dead for 180 years. (All these sizzling Lamartine facts come courtesy of a quick Wikipedia skim, which already feels like more research than went into the screenplay, written by Besson, presumably in crayon.) Anyway, the man in question here is Doug (Caleb Landry Jones) which is pretty clever because it sounds a lot like “dog.” And if you like that kind of Wildean wordplay you’re going to love the bit where Doug’s vicious, bible-thumping elder brother Richie (Alexander Settineri) hangs a banner reading “In the Name of God” across the front of Doug’s cage so that, seen from the inside, backwards, G-O-D spells… oh look, if you can’t work that out, maybe you’ve just watched “Dogman.” There goes that rocket science degree.
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Hold up, though, Doug’s in a cage? Why yes. As the adult Doug, mysteriously bruised and bloodied and dressed in disheveled Marilyn Monroe drag (more on that later, I’m afraid) tells weirdly invested detention-center psychologist Evelyn (Jojo T. Gibbs), his was a difficult childhood. Giving us a break from DP Colin Wandersman’s scrupulously bland, shot-reverse-shot interview compositions, we frequently whizz into flashback mode as Doug relates in tediously chatty detail how his violently abusive father (Clemens Schick) kept a pack of mangy hounds on the brink of starvation so they’d be more vicious during dogfights. And when dog-lover-not-dog-fighter Doug (played as a child by Lincoln Powell) showed the poor animals a minimal amount of tenderness, his dad slung him into their cage, bellowing “They’re your family now!” Finally, after a shotgun sorta-accident that renders him not just disabled, but poetically so, in that, Elephant Man-style, he can actually walk but every step he takes on his braced, buckled legs brings him closer to certain death, he uses his dog-whispering superpowers to effect an escape and never looks back.
Now as an adult, he enjoys a position of some influence locally, using his squadron of remarkably intuitive but also very poorly differentiated dogs in a range of Looney Tunes criminal enterprises that bring him to the attention of a sweaty Latino gangster called El Verdugo (John Charles Aguilar) and a, well, dogged insurance agent called Ackerman (Christopher Denham). On Fridays, he performs at a drag cabaret, just for fun and self-expression.
Maybe “Dogman” would be salvageable if Besson didn’t feel the need to thuddingly explain every single aspect of Doug’s quirk-laden personality, as though every last thing that a person is can be traced in a straight line back to a cause, because psychology is a long division sum that never leaves a remainder. Doug makes his family among dogs because he dad told him the dogs were his family. Doug believes in God because who else would have sent him these dozens of dogs, one for each of his troubles? And Doug dresses up in women’s clothes because there were a bunch of women’s magazines back in the cage, and then a pretty social worker/actress taught him Shakespeare and make-up at one of his homes, ok?
The dog, dog-lover, drag queen, Latino, psychologist, insurance agent, police, Shakespearean actor, Caleb Landry Jones fan and wheelchair-using communities are just a few of the interest groups that “Dogman” insults, but none of them so dramatically as to be actually provocative or memorable. It’s just in the little ways. Like when Drag Queen Madonna and Drag Queen Cher are forced to pantomime amazement at Doug’s debut Edith Piaf performance in the club, when even the most casual “Drag Race” viewer can tell his lipsyncing is gurl please. Or like an inadvertently hilarious “Timmy’s in the well!” moment where a cop literally says “I think he’s trying to tell us something” in response to a perky little Jack Russell dropping a severed finger in a baggie onto his windshield.
Nowhere is there any evidence of Besson’s erstwhile reputation as a visual stylist or haute-trash auteur, in a film that looks like it belongs on mid-90s TV and sounds even worse, with soundtrack cuts so screamingly literal that when the Piaf song that Doug chooses to cover that first night is not her most iconic number but “La Foule,” you just know that something’s up. Sure enough, it turns out he was saving “Je Ne Regrette Rien” for the the no-stakes shoot-em-up finale, which is a kind of murderous canine “Home Alone” only somehow not remotely as much fun as that sounds. As random dogs set off previously unmentioned booby traps around Doug’s home, pushing bad guys into pits and hounding them into flooded rooms with dangling live electrical wires, Piaf warbles about regretting nothing which is deeply ironic for the “Dogman” viewer, who by now will have at around two hours of brand new regret to contend with.
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