Judge Clark Douglas is currently in the middle of an armadillo year.
Inspiration comes from all walks of life.
George LaVoo's A Dog Year is a quiet, simple film with precisely two things going for it: the presence of actor Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) and a wonderful dog. Is that enough? Almost.
Bridges plays Jon Katz, a frustrated writer going through a difficult period in his life. He's in the middle of some sort of complicated separation with his wife, his daughter (Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under) is away at college, and he's suffering from severe writer's block. Though he already owns two yellow Labradors, Jon agrees to rescue another dog from an abusive home. The dog is a German Border Collie named Devon, and he is the most difficult dog Jon has ever dealt with. Devon is both aggressive and nervous around humans and misbehaves in just about every way a dog can. As his frustration reaches a boiling point, Jon takes the dog with him to a rental house in the middle of nowhere, hoping to find some inspiration for his book and improve his relationship with Devon.
A Dog Year was shot in 2006 and was intended as a theatrical feature, but it languished on the shelf until HBO picked it up and broadcast it in late 2009. As I'm sure most of you are aware, situations like this often indicate that the film in question is a dud. While A Dog Year doesn't do much to challenge that common knowledge, it isn't an awful film by any stretch of the imagination. It's simply an underwhelming one; a lightweight feature that feels very padded despite a scant 79-minute running time.
In some ways, it's refreshing to find an animal-themed film that avoids cheap melodrama or theatrics. There's no deadly situation the dog has to rescue his owner from; no sudden diseases or injuries that send the film into tearjerker territory during the final act. It's the very ordinary story of a man attempting to convince a wild, crazy dog to sit down, behave and understand that some humans can be perfectly decent creatures. Teaching a dog to sit is a minor aside in most films; it's the big climax in this one. Still, with little at stake the film settles into a somewhat bland routine: Devon does something bad, Jon gets frustrated and threatens to get rid of the dog, Devon does something adorable and Jon's heart melts. Rinse and repeat. I believed Jon's first cry of, "Dammit, I'm done with you!" but not his fifth and sixth.
Oddly enough, there are actually a couple of subplots stirring in the background which the film often acknowledges but rarely develops. The separation between Jon and his wife is referenced several times (most explicitly in a couple of phone conversations between the two), but it never reaches any resolution. Likewise, a brief appearance by Lauren Ambrose seems to be leading up to some sort of father/daughter healing session, but that never happens either. The film is largely focused on the relationship between Jon and Devon; everything else seems to fizzle. Well, the third-act entrance of a dog trainer (Lois Smith, True Blood) is an additional item of actual substance, but the character is too cartoonish to be taken seriously.
And yet, much like a poorly-behaved dog with an adorable personality, the film has a way of making you love it despite its flaws. Bridges turns a tiresome character into a compelling one and brings considerable weight to scenes that might have been disposable otherwise. His interactions with Devon are a pleasure to behold; the simple moments between them are nothing short of lovely. Devon and Bridges redeem the film to the degree that they can, even when saddled with some terribly written moments (we get some particularly awkward chunks of exposition as Bridges shouts out who each family member is and where they are right now as Devon runs from room to room—"Don't go in there! That's Emma's room; she's away at college right now and should be home next weekend!").
The DVD transfer is sturdy enough, if slightly below HBO's usual standard for their 480p releases. Flesh tones are warm and accurate, depth is solid and the warm palette is pleasing to behold, but detail is less pristine than I would have hoped (there are fleeting moments where characters look as if they've been constructed from tiny building blocks). Audio is fine, with the emphasis on dialogue and a predictably syrupy score by Joseph Vitarelli. The only supplement on the disc is a brief making-of featurette.
I love Jeff Bridges and I love dogs. That was enough to make A Dog Year a pleasantly forgettable experience for me, but I can see how others might find it terribly dull. Either way, it's tough to recommend. A Dog Year is an inoffensive misfire.
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