Under normal circumstances, it’s best to walk into a film as open-minded as possible. Trailers can be deceiving. Movie posters can be misleading. Plot synopses are often vague. Beyond those under 10, for instance, who, at first glance, thought “The Lego Movie” would be amazing? Let they who knew from the beginning that ‘The Phantom Menace‘ would stink cast the first rotten tomato. The world is nothing without its fair share of surprises and disappointments. They come by the plentiful from the multiplex. Yet, you’d need to be naive or, at best, willfully, blindly hopeful to believe Lasse Hallström’s “A Dog’s Purpose” could end up anything but pure dogshit.
An asinine canine journey for the dog lover’s soul, based on the book of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron, “A Dog’s Purpose” admittedly looks well-meaning and harmless on the surface. Like a two-hour Hallmark card fuelled by the power of puppy kisses, artificial sweetener and Marmaduke comics, it follows the precious, if aloof, inner-life of a feeble puppy (voiced by Josh Gad), waxing existential dilemmas like “what is the meaning of life” while rolling around in a pile of fellow pups. Existence is innocent and carefree until the pound comes around. Then, through circumstances unseen, this newborn mutt is no longer with us. These are literally the first three minutes. But alas, the dog’s spirit is reborn, if in a new form.
He’s now Bailey, a loyal furry friend to young Ethan (Bryce Gheisar), a troubled, lonely late ‘50s Michigan kid living in an unhappy marriage between his workaholic, alcoholic father (“Rectify”’s Luke Kirby) and his resilient mother (“The Knick”’s Juliet Rylance). Through various circumstances and dilemmas, they guide one another past adolescence into early adulthood, where high-schooler Ethan (KJ Apa) is a small-town football sensation. He’s a handsome, if shy, good-hearted and caring gentleman, and that attracts the beautiful, quippy Hannah (Britt Robertson). Through a carnival meet-cute thrusted by the rascal Bailey himself, the two early lovebirds share the best, most romantic summer together. Their romance is in full bloom when they start transitioning into college, where Ethan has a full ride on a football scholarship. The world is in harmony, then tragedy strikes, as it usually always does in these films. It’s not long after when Bailey grows ill and passes away.
But, alas! Bailey is, once again, reborn! Now, the wayward Bailey is the tough Ellie, trained by the depressed widower Jacob (John Ortiz) as a search-and-rescue dog on the local city beat. Her days aren’t nearly filled with tummy rubbing or lawn-playing freedom like they were under Ethan’s care. But hey, a dog’s purpose is never clearly defined at first! Ellie is a dutiful, compassionate partner, but only briefly. That’s because, you guessed it, death awaits Ellie. Then rebirth! Then death. Then rebirth! Man oh man. Dog oh dog. Does the Dog Die might explode.
An introspective journey into the elusive mind of our dogs isn’t a novel concept, despite the origins of this new film. Last year alone, we saw “The Secret Life of Pets” become a huge hit. But it’s easy to see why it’s such an easy target. These type of movies, at their best, are usually modest, unpretentious and squeaky clean. Aiming for broad appeal with little in the way of lofty ambitions, they pander to their unassuming audience, cater to their unspecific demands, and then turn in a tidy profit on their low budgets. It’s simple math, but it’s easy to follow money. It’s like pasta. You boil the water. Put the noodles in. Let it cook. Add sauce. Feed everyone. Simple enough, right? Of course, there’s always someone who wants to get “creative” in the kitchen…
“A Dog’s Purpose” plays like a wandering dog’s magnum opus, hoping to explore one’s universal spirituality and the nature of being in a vast, ongoing landscape of passing time. That could be interesting enough, if done well, but it’s so cloyingly sentimental that it sacrifices any and all headiness for joke book-level lame puns and overwhelmingly lazy writing. Worse yet, the contrived, clunky plot gives little value to each of the dog’s passings, making the cycle of its existence hold as much emotional jeopardy as the suicide montage in “Groundhog’s Day.” And yet, despite all its grievances, “A Dog’s Purpose” is periodically moving, almost by accident.
While the quality of the film might suggest otherwise, “A Dog’s Purpose” is not Hallström’s first, but third dog movie, behind 1985’s far-superior “My Life As A Dog” and 2009’s well-liked “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale.” If he makes one more, the Swedish filmmaker has a DVD box set! While ill-conceived and poorly plotted, Hallström’s touch is felt throughout the characters. The reliable cast, which also includes Dennis Quaid and Peggy Lipton in roles best left unspoiled, all provide surprisingly well-felt performances, which elevate the fraudulent pathos at play. Quaid in particular, an actor who quite rarely garners the respect he deserves, heightens the last reel with a grounded emotional honesty — which is needed, since that’s when this film, after multiple dog deaths, is at its most unbearable (or un-dog-able). Additionally, Ortiz does far-better character work than “A Dog’s Purpose” deserves. The same compliments should be extended to Robertson and Lipton, as well as Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Pooch Hall in their respective roles.
However, not even they can make “A Dog’s Purpose” work in full past its multiple imperfections, though, and that’s without delving into the highly-controversial, recently-unearthed (and very unfortunate) set video. Even the most forgiving audiences will find a lot of bones to pick with this one. “A Dog’s Purpose” is an awkward, graceless, meandering and unnecessarily cruel dog movie, and therefore a fairly meaningless one. If you want some dog-related cuteness, look elsewhere. YouTube videos treat you better, and for a shorter period of time. If you want to go through an emotional furball-focused excursion, travel down Hallström’s past. Sometimes, first impressions are fallacious. This time, with “A Dog’s Purpose,” they’re exactly right. [C-]