Take a deep breath and try to forget – if only for a moment – the controversy swirling around A Dog’s Purpose: the alleged abuse, the canceled premiere, the subsequent damage control. Clear that from your mind, because the actual movie? This thing we call A Dog’s Purpose? Well, it might be one of the most cloying and aggressively irritating films that I have ever been subjected to. Could Swedish director Lasse Hallström have foreseen that 32 years after he made the subtle, bittersweet coming-of-age drama My Life as a Dog (not about an actual dog), that his career trajectory would have him making not only a film about life as an actual dog, but lives as multiple actual dogs? Chalk it up to either irony or merely the fault of some lazy studio executive who Googled “dog film director” (it works!). Whatever has led Hallström down this slippery slope to syrupy exploitation – which began, of course, with the gateway drug of a couple of Nicholas Sparks adaptations, blended with 2009’s Hachi: A Dog’s Tale – he has created a misguided and utterly tone-deaf Hallmark card to the canis lupus familiaris and the people who love them.
The film opens in an idyllic Sixties that only ever existed in the Baby Boomers’ collective unconscious, as young Ethan (Gheisar) meets Bailey, a golden retriever he takes in, despite the grumblings of his soon-to-be-alcoholic dad. At this point I will note that Bailey is voiced by Josh Gad (Olaf from Frozen), whose “Oh gosh! Oh golly!” delivery of Bailey’s internal monologue throughout the film will have you pining for the subtlety of Bruce Willis’ performance in the Look Who’s Talking franchise. Bailey repeatedly dies and is reincarnated as various breeds as time goes by: a German shepherd police dog with a lonely, sad-sack K-9 cop as his handler; a corgi falling into the lap of a lonely, sad-sack college student. My favorite section is Bailey coming back as a Saint Bernard, taken and neglected by a lonely, sad-sack “white trash” couple (you can tell because she has a lip ring, and their yard is a mess). Bailey escapes and somehow finds himself reunited with a middle-aged, lonely, sad-sack Ethan (Quaid). Throughout his “lives” Bailey plays matchmaker for his owners in increasingly maudlin ways, muses on the topics of bacon and sniffing butts, and incessantly asks himself (wait for it) “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” In the end, complementing the reincarnation theme, the answer, cribbed from Ram Fucking Dass (who did a lot of cribbing himself) is to “be here now,” a sentiment that couldn’t be further from mine while I was watching this movie.
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