You have almost undoubtedly heard the saying, “Chocolate and peanut butter — two great tastes that go great together.”
Reese’s wasn’t wrong, the peanut butter cup is delicious, but there’s something important there in that idea at the saying’s core that goes unstated: while these two things are delicious separately and together, you cannot simply take two things that are delicious separately, combine them, and wind up with something as good or better. The easiest and most obvious example of things that taste fine (maybe not great) separately and terrible together is toothpaste and orange juice.
Many films (as we’ve noted) attempt to cross the line from one genre to the next and often do so quite well (two great tastes that go great together), but it doesn’t always work. For an example of the unfortunate attempt, one need look no further than this week’s new release, “Dog.” It is toothpaste and orange juice.
Directed by Reid Carolin & Channing Tatum, with a screenplay from Carolin and starring Tatum, the tale centers on an ex-Army Ranger, Jackson Briggs (Tatum), bringing a dog that was part of his unit 1,500 miles in a car to go the funeral of the dog’s former handler. The dog, Lulu, is suffering from the trauma she experienced during her time in combat. Briggs, too, is suffering the effects of his time in combat, taking meds to try to control headaches, and needs to stay relatively calm to prevent seizures. Lulu’s former handler committed suicide, with the war a likely cause of his struggles.
As a film, “Dog” is a tale of these two struggling creatures—Briggs and Lulu—not coming to terms with what happened to them, but finding a way to live a healthy and happy life despite their traumas. It is a truly important discussion and both dark and serious.
“Dog” is also a lighthearted comedy with Lulu tearing Briggs’ car apart and preventing him from being able to sleep with women. There are also things like hotel shenanigans when Briggs pretends to be blind to get a free room. On and on it goes, a buddy road trip comedy with amusing moments galore (the pot farm bit is particularly funny).
The dark and serious “Dog” and the funny and lighthearted “Dog” both work, maybe not brilliantly, but they both work. What doesn’t work is the to marry the two halves of the film. Tatum and Carolin’s shots at humor generally succeed until one realizes exactly why the funny things are happening – because Briggs and Lulu are both on the verge of collapse, both are struggling to just keep living their lives. The humor ought not put a smile on the faces of those in the audience because there is an incredible, serious, deadly thing at its core. Someone slipping on a banana peel might be funny… until you realize that the person is drunk and high and in desperate need of professional help. That’s where we are with Briggs and Lulu.
It is all a horrible shame as Tatum succeeds so very well in playing both the lighter and darker aspects of the movie. The supporting cast includes Ethan Suplee, Kevin Nash, and Jane Adams, and everyone brings something special to their various portions of the film with Suplee particularly good at doing some emotional heavy lifting. But every time you stop and think about what’s going on and the way the movie plays some of the elements as a joke, it becomes that much more depressing.
“Dog” is never sure whether it wants to face the darkness at its core and discuss it (and that discussion is a worthy one to have) or whether it wants to just be a vaguely amusing, moderately heartwarming, tale. The attempt to split the difference is where it goes awry.
The suggestion here is not that the film is not true to life—we all experience happy and sad things—but rather that the attempt to offer both a comedy and a dark drama as one entity does not succeed. Toothpaste and orange juice.
In the end, “Dog” is not a good movie. It is two good halves that have been smushed together to make something middling and very uncomfortable. It is full of great moments and some exceptionally pretty countryside and important life lessons and bits of humor and it winds up so terribly jumbled, undercutting itself at every turn. Some tastes simply do not go together.
photo credit: MGM