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Dustin Putman

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Old Dogs  (2009)
2 Stars
Directed by Walt Becker.
Cast: John Travolta, Robin Williams, Kelly Preston, Conner Rayburn, Ella Bleu Travolta, Seth Green, Lori Loughlin, Rita Wilson, Bernie Mac, Matt Dillon, Ann-Margret, Justin Long, Dax Shepard, Luis Guzman, Amy Sedaris.
2009 – 88 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for some mild rude humor).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 23, 2009.
"Old Dogs" is cornball, predictable, decidedly estranged from reality, and tailor-made for mainstream audiences who eat up movies that shamelessly manipulate their emotions while putting only two thoughts into their heads: "Boy, that's funny!" and "Awwwww!" The music score, which never met a string instrument it didn't like, punctuates every slapstick and dramatic moment as if it were the only way for viewers to understand how they should be feeling by any given scene. Director Walt Becker last made 2007's "Wild Hogs," a surprise box-office hit with a deplorable mean side to its deceptively all-in-good-fun brand of humor. Indeed, with all of these characteristics, "Old Dogs" has no right to be tolerable, let alone good. As light and inconsequential as it is, however, its infectious energy and naively big heart gradually win you over.

Middle-aged best friends and business partners Charlie (John Travolta) and Dan (Robin Williams) are single, childless, and have never fully grown up. On the verge of making the sports marketing deal of their careers with some Japanese clients, Dan is thrown for a loop when he is visited by Vicki (Kelly Preston), a woman he met, married and promptly divorced seven years earlier while on a drunken Miami getaway. She's got a two-week stint in jail ahead of her (not to worry, the reason is harmless) and—surprise, surprise!—7-year-old twins Zach (Conner Rayburn) and Emily (Ella Bleu Travolta) who need looking after. Suddenly thrust into the realization that he is a father, Dan has no choice but to agree to take his children for a few weeks. He's ill-prepared for parenthood, to be sure—his condo has a no-kids policy that forces them to shack up with eternal bachelor Charlie—but as Dan spends more time with Zach and Emily, he begins to realize what he has been missing in his life all along.

"Old Dog" gets off to a rocky start, throwing the viewer into the middle of Charlie's and Dan's lives and personalities—Charlie is the wild one, Dan the more level-headed but easily coaxed divorcee—and falling close to flat with an insensitive ethnic gag involving an especially dark suntan. Also, when introduced, precocious Zach and Emily act far too unnaturally outgoing when they meet father Dan for the first time, as if they've known him all their lives. As the movie presses on, though, it improves substantially to the point of sheer entertainment. The pacing is zippy, the performances are charming, and for every scene that gets too silly or over-the-top for its own good (i.e., a Pioneer Weekend camping trip gone awry), there are plenty of set-pieces that do work. After the kids accidentally mix up Charlie's and Dan's medications, they unknowingly take them before heading off to a country club potluck. The side effects they receive as they mingle with a grief support group are very funny. So, too, is Charlie's introduction to the children of the "Friday the 13th" series, and young Zach's misconstrued online correspondence with the Japanese board of directors that Dan and Charlie have been wining and dining.

It is not surprising in the least where things go next. Just as Dan gets used to being a father and a potential mate for Vicki again, he is faced with a life-changing career decision. Meanwhile, Charlie begins to question his own singleton lifestyle after falling for his foxy translator Amanda (Lori Loughlin). There are some maudlin emotions mixed in—of course, Dan experiences an epiphany of what is really important during his all-important presentation to his clients—but it all is done with such unabashed good spirits that the clichés cease to matter. The relationships that grow between Dan and his kids may be surface-deep, but there is nonetheless a sweetness to them. It helps that the children aren't your usual trouble-making movie brats, but average, likable tykes who only sporadically get into mischief. The soundtrack is fun, to boot (Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69" is well-used during a baseball game montage).

John Travolta (2009's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3") and Robin Williams (2009's "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian") are a delectable pairing, at ease with each other and game to go for it in their respective parts. The supporting cast they have surrounded themselves with is unusually strong. Kelly Preston (2007's "Death Sentence") is warm and lovely as Vicki, while Lori Loughlin (TV's "90210" reboot) gets her first solid big-screen role in over ten years as Charlie's love interest Amanda. Rita Wilson (2009's "My Life in Ruins") is a riot as Vicki's cross-eyed friend Jenna, a hand model with a streak of bad luck, while Conner Rayburn (2009's "The Invention of Lying") and newcomer Ella Bleu Travolta (daughter of John Travolta and Kelly Preston) show glimmers of real talent and intuition with the relatively undemanding parts of Zach and Emily. The one awkward appearance is by the late Bernie Mac (2008's "Soul Men") as a puppeteer. It's a small role, but also a throwaway one. Seeing Mac in a brand-new film almost a year and a half after his death is also somewhat disconcerting.

Earlier this year, there was an Eddie Murphy flop called "Imagine That" released. The premise was startlingly similar to "Old Dogs," but the makers had no idea what it takes to helm a family film. When your target audience is kids and half of your movie is set in dry corporate board meetings, you know something has gone terribly wrong. By comparison, undemanding audiences of all ages should eat up "Old Dogs," a flawed but likable piece of fluff with zany antics and earnest sentiment to spare. It's not a great movie or a groundbreaking one by any stretch, and it is sure to be picked apart in certain circles, but that doesn't take away the high spirits with which it has been made.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman