With a title like “Dog Days” and the promise of well-trained, furry cuties of all sizes, there’s little that would have stopped dog lovers in the moviegoing public from turning this August release into a late summer hit. But the gentle surprise is that director Ken Marino’s ensemble romantic comedy mixing adorable canines and humans who need as much rescuing as the animals they adopt, is something of a shaggy charmer itself.
The movie, written by Elissa Matsueda and Erica Oyama but juiced liberally by some of the ad-lib-honed comedians in its cast, is a glossy mutt of many movie breeds: the dog flick (obviously), the intertwined-lives anthology, the brochure-for-LA spread of beautiful actors in sunny surroundings, the you-complete-me romance, and the PG family comedy that can aim the occasional sex/drugs reference to the adults because – full circle – it’s got “aww”-inspiring pets to distract the little ones. That the movie is as seamless in its humor and sweetness – knowing, for example, how to insert an awkwardly rendered “Amazing Grace” into a pet bereavement moment so that it’s both funny and touching – is, under Marino’s stewardship, an impressive asset.
Early on, getting introduced to the movie’s orbit of dog-centric Angelenos, there’s some smile-inducing fun to be had at the timeworn observation about owner/pet similarities. Lively morning show anchor Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev, “The Vampire Diaries”), clearly suffering from a bad breakup, likes to tell her pricey canine therapist (Tig Notaro) it’s her dog Sam who’s the sad one. When highly strung expectant mother Ruth (Jessica St. Clair) chews out her irresponsible musician brother Dax (Adam Pally), her neglected dog Charlie – who’s getting handed off to Dax before the birth — barks the whole time. And just after we hear perky, overqualified barista Tara (Vanessa Hudgens) express concern that she hasn’t found her calling, she discovers a shivering stray chihuahua behind a dumpster, which puts her in contact with frequent customer Garrett (Jon Bass) because whaddayaknow, his job – and life’s passion – is running a rescue center.
The last two story threads, which eventually converge, lean on affecting emotional truths about the role pets play in incomplete homes. In one, nervous parents (Eva Longoria and Rob Corddry) worry about pleasing their newly adopted daughter Amelia (Elizabeth Caro), while elsewhere an ornery widower Walter (Ron Cephas Jones, “This Is Us”) loses his chubby pug Mabel, in the process befriending a neighborhood pizza delivery boy (Finn Wolfhard, “Stranger Things”) who offers help finding her.
Though there’s not exactly any suspense in the love matchups, they’re handled with an appealing effervescence and easygoing wit. Geeky Garrett’s obstacle in winning Tara’s affections is hunky, narcissistic veterinarian Dr. Mike (Michael Cassidy), a dilemma which naturally makes Garrett’s personalized attention to the chihuahua Tara discovered into an appropriate metaphor for lovelorn Davids battling romantic Goliaths. And when Elizabeth turns a testy on-camera exchange with a flirtatiously combative ex-football player (a highly charismatic Tone Bell) into a blossoming friendship, it’s their dogs’ initial spark toward each other that clearly signals what’s to come. Perhaps the most persuasively heartwarming love connection is between exasperated Dax and needy Charlie, whose bond amounts to a symbiotically messy, junk food-loving, man/dog bromance.
It’s never been too difficult for these types of movies to play us like fiddles, and if it’s tears you want, Jones offers a small masterclass in the subtle swerve from performative crankiness to thawing sentiment. But it’s Marino’s comedy background – going back to co-founding the influential comedy troupe The State, and continuing as a writer (“Role Models”) and director (“Children’s Hospital”) – that helps make “Dog Days,” which features his longtime colleagues David Wain and Thomas Lennon in minor comic roles, a breezily enjoyable two hours. (Marino himself appears, too, in a tartly funny bit as a vain co-anchor of Elizabeth’s.)
There’s a refreshingly contained, deadpan sass to many of the characters’ personalities – and even Marino’s direction of the actors — that makes these people appealing, not abrasive, and which never devolves into the needlessly crude or ham-fistedly improvised, as so often happens in the more raucously engineered R-rated comedies. One wonders if more comedians shouldn’t try their hand steering all-ages fare, if only as a challenge. Marino certainly shows how it can be done without losing laughs or – if one absolutely must depict the aftermath of a dog’s ingesting of pot brownies – grownup edge.
As for the canine cast, they’re not exactly the stars of “Dog Days,” but their deployment as behaviorally appropriate companions, whether forced to wear embarrassing clothes or provide a fitting reaction shot, keeps the movie firmly in the realm of the believable/aspirational. One senses that the people behind “Dog Days” genuinely love, get, understand, and cherish that special bond, which always makes it that much more likely a movie like this is going to know how to both tug the heart-leashes and tickle any well-chewed funny bones.