Th!nkFilm // 2006 // 89 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // September 24th, 2007
Eat. Sleep. Therapy. Repeat.
Scott Caan, son of James (The Godfather), and supporting actor in Saving Private Ryan and Ocean's Eleven, marks his second film as writer/director with The Dog Problem, a low-budget character-driven comedy.
Improbably named author Solo (Giovanni Ribisi, Cold Mountain) is reaching a personal crisis: the money from his last novel, which was popular but by most accounts terrible, has run out, and he can no longer afford to visit his therapist (Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda). He takes a parting suggestion to heart and buys a dog, further irritating the loan shark (Kevin Corrigan, Bad Boys) to whom he owes money. While quickly deciding pet care is not in his bailiwick, Solo can't quite bring himself to get rid of it, either.
An unfortunate incident at a dog park introduces Solo to a sexy, down-to-earth dancer named Lola, and together they just might get Solo's life figured out -- as soon as they find the dog...
Not having seen Caan's first feature, Dallas 362, I was somewhat skeptical of his writing and directing chops, and The Dog Problem's self-indulgent, seemingly improvised early scenes did little to assuage my fears. Exchanges between best friend Casper and Solo ramble on with virtually no point.
But somehow, once the rather thin plot kicked in, I found Solo to be remarkably charismatic despite his off-putting self-loathing, sad-sack demeanor. Ribisi reveals layers of the character slowly, doling out tidbits of his humanity until we're rooting for him in spite of ourselves. Credit for Solo's transformation also goes to Lynn Collins, whose portrayal of Lola draws out likeability from him when it's needed the most. Lola is The Dog Problem's most well-rounded character, confident yet carrying a realistic vulnerability, personifying the late-twenties American just living life and not apologizing for a lack of ambition. By the movie's end, I cared for these two, and was very much interested in what the future held for them.
The supporting roles are largely caricatures, responsible for motivating Solo to do this or that but with little or no development. Mena Suvari (American Beauty) is mildly amusing as a dog collector whose constant use of the word "bitch" tells us she's eccentric, while Corrigan's loan shark is mainly present to talk tough. Casper fares somewhat better as a philandering photographer with an enviable loft and even more enviable way with women. But this is a story about Solo, Lola, and a dog; the rest is just atmosphere.
And it works. The Dog Problem succeeds at maintaining a light yet intelligent tone, and while Caan confesses on the audio commentary that some of the camerawork was inspired by French New Wave films, he's not making the mistake trying to show off the depth of his filmic knowledge in one picture. The Dog Problem knows well what kind of movie it wants to be -- lighthearted and fun -- and more often than not it hits the mark. We saw a lot of these types of films popping up in the late nineties, independent labors of love acting as a training ground for future success, and The Dog Problem fits nicely into that canon.
Cinematographer Phil Parmet (The Devil's Rejects) has created a naturalistic, soft lighting scheme with several moments of real beauty: one conversation between Solo and Lola while driving features gorgeous and abstract colors outside their windows that underscore what's really going on in the scene in a subtle but effective way. Shots are unobtrusive but never unstylish. Similarly, Wes Anderson favorite Mark Mothersbaugh (Rushmore) contributes a score that's one part eighties techno and two parts indie rock, striking a tone during the imaginative opening credits and developing it throughout the running time.
The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer is clean and blemish free with only a fine sheen of grain, even in low light situations. The occasional instance of edge enhancement can be found but is not at all intrusive. The sound comes courtesy of a functional 5.1 mix almost exclusively output from the front and center channel, which is to be expected on a talky low-budget comedy. Music has some nice separation, though, with plenty of tonal range.
The only extra feature, save for the theatrical trailer is a laid-back commentary with Caan and Ribisi, whose friendship is palpable through the speakers; they prompt each other to give tidbits about casting and production. It's especially interesting listening to a young actor like Caan give his views on the audition process, both as an actor and as a director, and the track overall is worth a listen if you enjoyed the movie.
It's not a movie that'll change your life, but after a rough beginning, The Dog Problem becomes a very charming and likable little picture. Caan has achieved an informal quality that the more accomplished Edward Burns (Looking for Kitty) has strived for, not always successfully, and holds a good deal of promise as a writer/director/actor. Recommended for patient viewers.
The accused gets a fine for misdemeanor rambling, but is otherwise free to go.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with Scott Caan and Giovanni Ribisi
* Theatrical Trailer