The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't. This week, I watched....
The blurb for people who don't like to read actual criticism:
Man About Dog meets an incredibly specific niche. If you're looking for a Ritchie-esque crime(ish) comedy from the UK with somebody like Brendan Gleeson, but not, and you've already run through the A list, then MAD is for you. Unfortunately, if none of those things sound remotely appealing, then this week's entry is going to be a dud. Maybe go try The Barbarians? That one's fun for all types.
My Rating: 3.5 / 5
My Rating: 3.5 / 5
The longer bits for people who like film discussion:
The Bit Wherein I Introduce Things
Once again dipping my toes into international waters, I'm forced to admit that I know not much about Irish culture. (Actual Irish culture, I mean. I know all about douchebags.) So I'm probably going to miss a lot of key points as I stumble my way through an introduction this week.
Man About Dog is the fifth feature directed by Paddy Breathnach, an Irish director who is better known for Shrooms, a horror comedy, and Blow Dry, a romantic comedy, neither of which I've seen. MAD came in between those two films right as the late '90s / early '00s trend of hip, fast-paced dark comedy centered on lowlifes and criminals started to lose steam.
We still see movies of this type from time to time - and why not? Movies in this subgenre are cheap, they don't require crazy sets, and they give young actors and actresses a chance to play cool, snappy characters. But even so, the initial scramble has played out and it now seems like tired ground to tread.
"What's that? You have a fast-paced satire about two thugs who owe money to the mob? Let me just give you a time machine so we can greenlight that."
MAD was made in 2004 and hasn't really made much of a splash outside of the UK. I can understand why. Aside from the dwindling appeal of dark crime comedies, it's a movie featuring only Irish actors that takes place entirely in small cities and has an incredibly small scope. It's kind of a micro-movie.
By contrast, 2004 was right around the time when we decided that the only movies people were allowed to make were overblown comic book fantasies with lots of CG and grade school morality. It was a transition from the intimate investigation of flawed, borderline-corrupt losers to the glorification of Gods Among Men.
If it was made just a few years earlier, I imagine this movie would've had a better chance. It probably still wouldn't have been a major hit, but it would at least be on the level of, say, Perrier's Bounty.
The Bit Wherein I Describe the Movie's Plot
Three Irish dudes with colorful names - Mo Chara, Cerebral Paulsy, and Scud Murphy - hang out at a dog track and daydream about ways they could strike it rich. Enter JP, resident heavyweight (and owner of the local dog champion). He offers them a dream deal: they screw around with a competing dog - thus ensuring JP's victory in the next race - and in exchange he will gift them their very own greyhound.
Unfortunately, JP neglects to mention that the greyhound in question is ancient and well past its racing days. Spurned by this deceit, the dudes take up a deal with a different dog owner / breeder: a widow whose deceased husband was cheated by JP and who is seeking revenge. She makes basically the same offer that JP made, only this time the greyhound in question is legit, and they'll be screwing with JP's dog.
Quick interruption: did I mention that this story is about dog racing? Because it totally is. I'm not sure how pertinent dog racing is to the average Irishman, but if MAD has taught me anything, it's that the Irish follow dog races the way Americans follow football.
Anyway, so the dudes throw a cat on the track and distract JP's dog. He loses out on a shitload of money - around $50,000 - and now he's out to get his money, or get his revenge. Whichever.
So the dudes run away with their new greyhound, Cerberus, and a road trip movie begins.
Much of the movie is a series of misadventures the guys have while running away from JP and deciding what to do with Cerberus. For example, they try to enter him into a smaller racing circuit in the countryside, but Cerberus loses - so they sell him to a group of Miscellaneous Thugs. Then the Misc. Thugs race Cerberus and he wins - so they decide to steal Cerberus back.
There's a lot of back and forth about how they need to train their dog and how they could win big if they try again, but all of this is basically in the background while they drink a lot, gamble on everything they can, and keep pissing off everybody they meet.
Ordinarily, three idiots getting into trouble would be enough for a movie. It's a formula that basically writes itself. But Man About Dog is a movie about dog racing, so whenever it strays too far into the countryside (as it does for the middle 30 minutes or so), it loses steam.
Eventually the movie finds its footing again when it starts building toward a climactic championship race in Clonmel. The boys find themselves in a precarious situation that basically goes like this: They have a hefty bet on Cerberus at 100 to 1 odds. If he wins the race, they'll strike it rich. They will be able to use the money to pay off their debt to JP, pay off the Misc. Thugs whose property they destroyed awhile back (that's a tangent I don't need to get into), and still have enough left over to invest in their respective business dreams. This sequence is easily the best part of the movie and actually has some great tension.
Ultimately, Cerberus wins and the boys are able to move onward and upward. But the allure of a wager keeps Mo Chara on edge, so the movie ends with him looking for a new dog to train.
The Bit Wherein I Discuss Thematic Relevance, Which is Basically Just Gambling
For the most part, this is a movie about the pure joy of gambling. Everything the characters do is motivated either by the thrills or consequences of taking a risk. For the most part, it's a satisfying exploration with only a few missteps.
In typical sandwich fashion, I'll delve into my nitpicks before I get back to the positive. So let me take a
Mo Chara is narrating the movie the entire time while laying in bed, and the idea is that his point of view is coming from the night right before the final dog race. When the climax finally comes to fruition, there's an obligatory scene where Mo Chara's narration catches up with the present of the film.
He has doubts about whether to go forward with the race and is tempted to get back on the road and keep running away. In true gambler fashion, he decides to make a game out of it. He'll flip a coin; if it lands on heads, he keeps Cerberus in the race, but if it lands on tails, he takes Cerberus and runs away. He flips, and it lands on heads. Then his narrator voice says something like, "You didn't think I'd chance that, did ya?" as he flips the coin over... to reveal that both sides are heads! Whoa! Mind blown!
This single moment sticks out against the rest of the movie like a nasty, rusty raised nail. For one thing, there's no suspense behind it at all, so any thrill that you'd get from him deciding his fate on a coin toss is completely neutered. For another, it comes out of nowhere and accomplishes nothing - we're already on board with the dog racing thing by this point and the scene doesn't change anything, so why instill a moment of doubt now? Especially if it's not actually doubtful? It's absurd.
Imagine something like this in an action movie. Batman spends the whole movie searching for The Joker's secret lair, then he finds it at around minute 90. But before he goes on an ass-kicking spree, he stops to get a doughnut and he asks himself, "I wonder if I should retire? Nah." What's the goddamn point?
But more than that, this single moment betrays the entire conceit of the movie, which is that Mo Chara is a hopeless gambling addict. He loves the high of a win so much that he can easily endure the pain of countless losses. Surely he wouldn't rig a little coin toss game that he's playing against himself. Either he'd commit to the gamble of a lifetime - and not bother with a coin toss - or he'd actually toss a coin because he's excited to see what comes up.
It's rare to see a movie where you can excise such a small portion and so dramatically increase the overall quality.
Despite that, though, I have to admit that the climactic sequence at the dog races is terrific. Breathnach does an amazing job of capturing the white-knuckle suspense of a race, which is even more astounding when you consider that the stakes are comparatively low. (Monetarily, at least.)
The fact that the movie ends with the dudes deciding to get back into dog racing - even though their best chance is to retire and take it easy - just seals the deal. The movie as a whole is a bittersweet and unapologetic love letter to addiction, and that's something you don't see often.
Imagine what the movie would be like if they tried this same approach with, say, substance abuse. You think Nicolas Cage still would've won the Oscar if Leaving Las Vegas ended with him living and just being a zany town drunk in Vegas?
The Bit Wherein I Conclude Things
Since Guy Ritchie still hasn't made that sequel to RocknRolla that he promised, you'll probably want to bide your time with a few of the lesser entries of this type.
It's a delicate balancing act. This subgenre requires a flashy visual style, quick-witted actors who can get the right banter, a cast of colorful archetypes, and a script that is just hip enough that its dialogue can be elevated to "fun quips" without coming across as snarky. If you get a single one of those elements wrong, then the movie fails. It either comes off as gimmicky, overwrought, stereotypical, cliched, or smug.
To put it another way - there's nothing worse than a stupid "smart" movie. Ever see Boys and Girls? That's the kind of crap I'm talking about, only with less guns.
Man About Dog is not a perfect movie, but it manages to pull off the balancing act pretty well. A better script would probably have solidified this one better in the public consciousness, but it's a solid enough adventure that works mainly because of the direction and the chemistry between its leads.
And of course I'd recommend it since it's pretty short, so that automatically bumps it up. You can watch Man About Dog on Youtube if you've got about 80 minutes to spare.