Channing Tatum tries to teach the buddy comedy genre some new tricks, but ends up playing dead
The love of an animal can be transformative. The mix of companionship and responsibility that taking care of a pet entails can help create stability in an otherwise chaotic life. So it’s no surprise that several movies explore the relationship between humans and canines.
Directors Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin combine the human/dog relationship with the road trip movie in their directorial debut, Dog. While they try to pull on the heartstrings by telling the story of a broken man finding healing with a similarly broken animal, the result is a movie that can’t figure out what it wants to be.
Former Army Ranger Briggs (Channing Tatum) is having a hard time adjusting to civilian life. Feeling stunted as a sandwich artist and estranged from his daughter, he’s hoping that he can be put back in the service in diplomatic security.
Unfortunately, a traumatic head injury he gained in Afghanistan has left him with migraines and seizures that make his commanding officers reluctant to put him back on duty. That is until the death of officer Riley, one of Briggs’ old colleagues, which gives Briggs a mission. Riley was a handler for Lulu, a Ranger Dog who was an indispensable part of their squadron, and Riley’s family wants Lulu at the funeral. If Briggs can get her there without incident, his commanding officer may consider getting him back into the force.
Naturally, the dog can’t fly due to trauma from her time in Afghanistan, so Briggs must drive her from Oregon to Arizona. If they’re going to get there in time, both Briggs and Lulu will need to learn to get along and overcome the scars they received from their time as rangers.
It’s clear that Tatum and Carolin are trying to evoke an old-school road trip movie. The plot is loose and episodic and the film is filled to the brim with breathtaking vistas of the American West Coast. Unfortunately, while the plot is pitch-perfect for a travelogue film, the tone is inconsistent. Dog can’t decide if it’s primarily a comedy or a drama, and it really doesn’t excel in either genre.
The trailers for Dog make it seem like it’s going to be a buddy comedy full of zany hijinks, but the laughs mostly fall flat. This is due to the repetition of the jokes, with most of the humor boiling down to “Lulu escapes and/or destroys things.” The only moment that breaks that mold is when the pair go to Portland and Briggs tries to hook up with stereotypical Portlandia hipsters. Even then, while the culture clash leads to some chuckles, most of the jokes will only land if you think the term “toxic masculinity” is scoff-worthy (to be fair, that’s probably the demographic Dog is going for). The humor could have worked if it leaned into the absurdity of bougie liberals, but Tatum and Carolin want to keep things grounded, muting any real bite to the scene.
Even when the situations become truly outlandish, Dog resists any zaniness, to the film’s detriment. Once such set-piece involves Briggs being kept hostage by a paranoid pot farmer (Kevin Nash), only to become friends with him. The premise was ripe for either comedy or tension, but Dog instead presents the interaction in a straightforward manner that doesn’t allow either to grow. The result is a scene that is awkward and uncomfortable until it becomes milquetoast.
Dog can’t decide if it’s primarily a comedy or a drama, and it really doesn’t excel in either genre.
While Dog works better as a drama, it doesn’t take much time to explore Briggs’ relationships. We don’t get much backstory as to why Briggs is estranged from the rest of the family, nor do we know that much about his relationship with Riley outside of how it relates to Lulu. Since the only character that Briggs has any prolonged interaction with is a dog, most of his demons are explored through inference. While it’s commendable that the filmmakers don’t try to hold the audience’s hand, either a bit more exposition or another human for Briggs to interact with would have helped strengthen his character arc. As is, the lack of development makes it hard to care about the story, and turns it into a slog.
The only aspect of Briggs’ character that feels fully developed is his trauma from wartime and his disillusion with a society that pretends to appreciate veterans, but throws them under the rug when they aren’t convenient. Lulu has become aggressive, anxious, and almost impossible to deal with upon returning from the Middle East, and the Army plans to put her to sleep once she’s back from the funeral. Similarly, Briggs’ tour has left him damaged both physically and emotionally, and his inability to either return to the military or adapt to civilian life is a death in its own way. It’s in the scenes where Dog explores the way we’ve let down veterans that the movie is at its most interesting.
Sadly, for most of Dog’s runtime, it fails to keep that interest. However, while the movie doesn’t live up to its potential, Tatum’s performance keeps it at least watchable. He excels at playing the type of character that feels like an everyman despite looking like…well, Channing Tatum, and this performance is no exception. Briggs is charming, even when he’s being scummy, and Tatum does a great job showing his vulnerability when his migraines kick in. And of course, Lulu will be a draw for the dog-loving crowd. The three Belgian Malinois dogs who play Lulu work well with Tatum’s energy and are incredibly cute.
Unfortunately, cuteness isn’t enough to save a film, and Dog just isn’t up to the task. The lack of a coherent tone and its loose plot keep the film from gelling, making the viewing experience ruff.
Dog premieres in theaters February 18th.