A Boy and His Cool Dog
Cool Dog (Danny Lerner, 2010)
I have seen into the abyss, and the abyss is Cool Dog. As I watched this seemingly cheerful kids’ movie, it eventually occurred to me that it must be some sort of John Waters-esque anti-movie freakshow. It HAS to be. I’m not sure how any sane person could make a movie like this and not realize they were severely pushing the limits of surreal unpleasantness.
Cool Dog tells the story of a pathetic and maladjusted Boy whose only friend is his Cool Dog. When his Dad gets a new job in New York City, the Boy is distraught to learn that Cool Dog can’t come for arbitrary reasons. Luckily, Cool Dog sets out on a (very brief) cross-country trip to rejoin his Boy, and together they help catch a group of animal smugglers working out of the apartment complex. In a development I did NOT see coming, the bad guys then kidnap the Boy in order to sell him into sex slavery in Mexico (maybe not the best idea for a plot point in a children’s movie) and Cool Dog must come to the rescue.
This is a strange film. For starters, the kid’s parents are very weird: The dad is meathead who can barely get his lines out; for some reason, we never see his arms, the sinister implications of which might only exist in my head but I thought were worth mentioning. The cruel stepmom is fiercely anti-Cool Dog and looks like a pornstar with just enough plastic surgery to pass into Uncanny Valley territory.
The villainous landlords are a mean, loud, fat lady (if you’re fat in this movie, you’re evil) and a squirrely guy who looks suspiciously like Peter Bogdanovich but, to my great disappointment, is not. They are very, very stupid. For some reason, a lot of children’s film-makers seem to think that kids like it when villains are as bumbling as possible, I guess because it makes them less scary and threatening. But these two are REALLY stupid; they’re so pitifully incompetent that it’s really stretching credibility to imagine that they could run a successful exotic animal smuggling business. And considering this is a movie in which a dog plays the banjo and drives a car, that’s pretty un-credible.
Cool Dog does a lot of cool things in this movie. He wackily pulls tricks on an ignorant country bumpkin! He chases down purse-snatchers! And after an excruciatingly long scene of the Boy crying to God over Cool Dog’s dead body, he even RETURNS FROM THE GRAVE. Cool Dog is Bugs Bunny, Batman, and Jesus all rolled into one.
I’m really not joking about the neigh-supernatural coolness of Cool Dog. He’s a furry messiah who can do no wrong. Those who love him speak of him in hushed, reverent tones, and those who don’t love him are depicted as the basest, evilest slime imaginable. There’s even several extended scenes of Cool Dog bonding with the homeless and downtrodden; he defends a homeless man from some punks (who look like members of Green Day), and a group of rail-riding bums out of a bad 30s comedy accept him as one of their own. Cool Dog is a dog of the people.
The filmmaking is purely functional, if never actually any good. In an early scene around the dinner table, I counted at least 12 different camera set-ups, despite the fact that no one ever moves. Does that seem weird to anyone else? It’s the sort of thing that happens a lot in the movie, with banal scenes receiving a huge amount of coverage while seemingly important plot points are handled with minimum effort. There’s also way too much post-production color correction going on, giving everyone’s skin tone a pallid, death-like hue. There’s not much else to say about the photography; everything is in focus, I guess.
Most of the dog action is handled by a real dog, who’s obviously very well-trained. Despite this, the filmmakers insist on using a very fake-looking faux paw for some shots. Frankly, these shots are horrifying. There’s no way a dog’s leg could contort in such a way to make these body positions possible, giving the impression that you’re either a) looking at a cheerful dog with its leg broken and twisted or b) watching some creepy Cronenbergian body-morphing shit.
But it was when I started looking into Cool Dog‘s cast and crew credits that I REALLY started to feel like I was losing my mind. Director Danny Lerner is a producer of countless action movies (including The Expendables 2(?!)) and one of his previous directing forays was the Stephen Baldwin-starring Shark in Venice. Michael Paré, who plays the dad, is the star of Eddie and the Cruisers, of all things, as well as tons of bottom-barrel action gunk. Perhaps most bizarrely, the dorky but evil landlord is played by David Jensen, a preferred bit-player of Steven Soderbergh; he played Elmo Oxygen in Soderbergh’s great surrealist/formalist comedy Schizopolis. And, as I had suspected, the mom really IS a pornstar; actress Christa Campbell got her start in those Erotic Confessions tapes that were always at shady video stores in the 90s.
It was with this discovery that I began to suspect that somebody out there was fucking with me. There’s NO WAY this was seriously intended as a fun children’s movie. There’s just something… off about Cool Dog, the kind of off where you start to suspect it was made as some sort of money-laundering scheme or something.
I feel like I’m collapsing into paranoid delusions, but that’s the effect Cool Dog had on me. I won’t go as far as to proclaim that Cool Dog is evil; I’ll leave that to others to judge. But I will say there’s there a slightly disquieting tenor to this movie, a strange, malignant aura, a sense that something here is very definitely wrong. I’ll be sleeping with the lights on tonight. If I sleep at all.