Film Torments Special: Old Dogs (2009)
WHEN the shock of the moment fades away, we’re left with a gnawing numbness at the heart of loss. When giants die, we live on in their shadow. I was originally all fired up to look at Superman IV: The Quest for Peace this week; with the sad passing of Robin Williams last Tuesday, however, I thought about ways in which I could pay tribute to the great man. I considered watching his incredible, Oscar-winning performance in Good Will Hunting; I remembered his terrifying turn as Walter Finch in Christopher Nolan’s under-appreciated Insomnia; I thought about popping in Aladdin and enjoying one of the finest performances in voice-acting history. Any number of his hilarious stand-up videos. Anything at all.
Unfortunately, unlike the rest of the civilised western world, I honour the memory of departed idols in a slightly different way: I subject myself to the worst thing they’ve ever done as a reminder that even our heroes can put a foot wrong every now and then. Here’s our case in point.
Old Dogs is a family comedy from Walt Disney starring Mr. Williams and John Travolta playing a pair of sports marketing executives (?) charged with babysitting the former’s hitherto undiscovered 7 year old twin progeny while their environmental activist (?) mother is in jail.
Wacky shenanigans ensue, A-list stars’ palms are greased and the audience is left stone-faced at the patent mirthlessness of it all. Also Bryan Adams does the theme song. I hope those alarm bells are ringing really fuckin’ loud.
The poorly-photoshopped photos featuring the two being all pally in various slapstick scenarios might be immediate causes for concern (and they are), but Travolta and Williams actually spark really nicely off each other. Had we not been introduced to every other insufferable aspect of the film and instead focused entirely on these two and their friendship, we might have been able to salvage a half-decent buddy comedy with, dare I say it, some heart. As it stands, however, they have to be as broad and sweeping in their performances as possible. While we are given the frankly horrifying image of a spray-tanned Williams in a pair of speedos, Travolta’s already melting face is contorting itself into a Lovecraftian chasm of what I can only assume to be a grin.
Elsewhere, the obvious set-ups and pay-offs amount to exactly zero laughs, while the moments that are supposed to ring with deep emotional resonance fall off a cliff because we’ve seen them umpteenth times in so many other rubbish family comedies (most of them from Disney). What distinguishes Old Dogs from the likes of Space Buddies? Well, Space Buddies is at least completely insane beneath its yucky kiddy-friendliness; Old Dogs doesn’t even seem like a family comedy because it focuses on sports marketing executives (seriously, what?).
All the wacky Boy Scout scenes, broken-then-rekept-promises and Bernie Mac puppeteering in the world can’t make up for the fact that this simply isn’t a kids’ film. They even manage to waste Seth Green, who spends the entire film off-camera, probably looking as bemused as he was during the brief moments he was on-camera (most of it spent in the arms of a gorilla).
All Travolta and Williams are really expected to do is gurn at the camera and pick up a paycheck (and they do), but they manage to not utterly embarrass themselves like many other big name actors slumming in crude kiddy comedies might. As yawnsome as the relentless “Oh ho we’re getting old aren’t we slap knee” jokes get – and they reach that stage very quickly – the two manage to soldier through it, especially when we consider that the film could have easily been re-cut as a psychological horror. The spray-tan scene really is the stuff of nightmares.
In spite of the vacuum of laughs, the leaden script, the saccharine kiddy nonsense, John Travolta’s face and all my legion cynicism, Williams still manages to, somehow, be as charming a screen presence as he’s ever been. He manages to shine through even the shittiest of doggy doos, and if that doesn’t hold up as a tribute to the man’s star power – skew-wiffiness aside – then I don’t know what will. Rest in peace, Robin.