Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: Hotel For Dogs was 2009’s most popular movie about the canine hospitality industry, which sounds impressive until you remember that it was the year’s only movie about the canine hospitality industry. Hotel For Dogs is the kind of transparently fluffy kiddie flick that’s too cute for critics to whack with a newspaper, but not so cute that they’ll take it home and let it lick their faces. It has a Metacritic score of 51, which seems suitably mediocre, though it’s sort of amazing that critics bothered to review it in the first place. On the cinema literacy scale, the audience for Hotel For Dogs ranks somewhere between “hardcore Saw fanatics” and “regular purchasers of Wayans brothers DVDs.” These aren’t people who look to Ozu-loving poindexters to tell them whether man’s best friend is capable of giving a credible performance. To his credit, The A.V. Club’s Keith Phipps was among those who reviewed Hotel For Dogs anyway. “Here's what a movie called Hotel For Dogs has to have in order to live up to its title: a hotel, and dogs,” he wrote in his C+ review. “What does a film called Hotel For Dogs need in order to avoid being a watch-checker for grown-ups? Whatever it is, Hotel For Dogs doesn't have it.”
Curiosity factor: I’m about to tell you way more about myself than you probably need or want to know. Ready? Here goes: As much as I’d like to think of myself as a cold-hearted, know-it-all cynic protected from the lameness of the outside world by foot-thick armor made of ironclad coolness, I know deep down that I’m the mushiest, wimpiest pussy ever in the history of mushy, wimpy pussies. And nothing brings out my mushy, wimpy pussy side faster or more completely than dogs. The only reason I didn’t see Marley & Me is not because the movie is sentimental treacle, but because (SPOILER!) I heard the goddamn dog dies at the end. Are you serious? Who wants to see a dog die? Dogs play, they frolic, and they dig up stuff and eat it. But they never, ever die, okay?
Can I show you something?
This is Lu, though she also answers to a number of nicknames: Lady, Poops, Pooper, Bunny, Cutie, Big Jon Runyan, and Jeremiah Trotter. (The last two are used exclusively during NFL games.) If you haven’t already guessed, Lu is my dog, though like a lot of dog owners, I tend to think of Lu as being something between a dog and a human being. (And not only because we kiss each other on the mouth. Did I mention that I might be saying too much about myself?) I’ve had Lu for about three years, and can safely say that if I had to choose between saving Lu from a burning building, or anyone among 98 percent of the people I’ve known in my life, I’d pick Lu. Before I had a dog, I would have thought you’d have to be completely fucking bonkers to say something like that. But now I know the truth: Dogs are better than people. They’re kinder, purer life forms, more in touch with what it really means to be alive than fucked-up creatures like us. Every mean dog you’ve met in your life was almost certainly screwed up by a horrible person. But treat a dog with a modicum of decency, and it will be one of the brightest parts of your life.
So yes, I’m one of those disgusting, over-the-top dog owners that treats his pet like a child. And, really, a movie about a hotel full of dogs sounds like plenty enough stimulation to keep this grown-up entertained for 90 minutes. (Was that a pug wearing a headband in the preview? Precious!) So let’s let the dogs in!
The viewing experience: Look, Hotel For Dogs is obviously not a great movie, and I’m not going to argue that it is. But the problem with Hotel For Dogs isn’t that it’s only a movie about a bunch of dogs living in a magical hotel that has inexplicably escaped detection by the city’s Gestapo-like army of dogcatchers. It’s that there isn’t enough dog-and-hotel action to go around. Instead, we spend way too much time on the people-centric plot involving two orphans (Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin) who are stuck with awful (but funny!) foster parents Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon. Unbeknownst to their evil caretakers, who are more invested in becoming rock stars and providing comic relief than in creating a suitable home environment, Roberts and Austin have been taking care of an adorable li’l pup living on garbage and pilfered hot dogs on the streets of their town.
Kudrow and Dillon—who, in a Dickens-style touch, keep the refrigerator and food cabinets locked—would never let the kids bring a dog in the house, but fortunately, the clever canine finds an even better home one day while dodging those pesky dogcatchers: an abandoned hotel taken over by a small, patchwork family of dogs. Before long, Roberts and Austin are rounding up four-legged friends left and right, saving them from certain doom at the pound and whisking them away to this doggie wonderland. Because Austin is a whiz-kid technological prodigy, he’s able to whip up a bunch of complicated doohickeys that keep the dogs entertained, even when he and his sister are off doing whatever non-dog-related business they attend to offscreen:
If Hotel For Dogs had more scenes like this, where dogs are just running around being cute, I would have enjoyed it more. (Though I could have used two or 20 fewer dog-poop jokes.) Unfortunately, the poor orphans take precedence in the plot. Eventually, their foster parents and those wretchedly soulless dogcatchers find out about the hotel for dogs. (It isn’t yet capitalized.) In spite of the efforts of earnest, perhaps overly committed social worker Don Cheadle—who apparently will star in any movie with “Hotel” in the title—our heroes get split up into different homes. Here’s the emotional, dogless farewell:
Can you imagine how much better that scene would have been had it included at least one dog chewing on a rope toy off in the corner or something? My complaint with Hotel For Dogs is that it lacks the courage to only deliver the canine cuteness the title promises. This orphan stuff feels like the price of admission you have to sit through to get to the dogs. If I were director Thor Freudenthal—a great name for a wolfhound, by the way—I would have cast dogs in the human roles, just to cut the fat out of the movie, and sold Hotel For Dogs as some kind of insane, butt-sniffing art film. Just think of the money you’d save on salaries that could be then applied to dog-sized people clothes and peanut butter to make their mouths move. (To clarify, the only dogs that would talk and wear clothes are the dogs playing human roles. The dogs playing dogs would just act like dogs.) In my dogs-only remake of Hotel For Dogs, I’d probably keep Cheadle, a fine actor and an even better sport. I’m sure the only reason he did this movie was to make his kids happy. Or maybe he jumped at the chance to deliver this climactic speech:
How much of the experience wasn’t a total of waste of time: 20 percent. I won’t get into my disappointment over how little face time pugs get in Hotel For Dogs. But I did feel a little ripped off, considering that I could have played with my dog for an hour and a half instead of watching this movie. But if you love dogs, Hotel For Dogs will probably cause you to make a gushing spectacle of yourself at least once or twice.