Putting on the Dog

I know a lot of women who proclaim loudly and often that men are dogs, but this is the first time I can recall seeing a film that takes the accusation literally. The main character in Carlo Carlei's Fluke is a family man who dies in a car crash as the movie opens, only to be reincarnated as a canine.

Director/co-screenwriter Carlei's previous film (and directorial debut) began with violent death as well; Flight of the Innocent opened with a young boy barely escaping after watching Mafia thugs massacre his family in the mountains of Sicily. Of course in that movie the dead people didn't return as cuddly animals. But in the publicity materials for Fluke, Carlei reveals that the main reason he agreed to direct Flight of the Innocent (a Golden Globe nominee for best foreign film last year, for what that's worth A somebody liked it) in the first place was to make a name for himself in hopes of amassing enough clout to realize his twelve-year-old dream of filming James Herbert's novel about a dog's journey of self-discovery.

There's more than a little irony inherent in the film's title. Carlei was barely out of film school in Italy when he first optioned Fluke for $5000 -- a paltry sum by Hollywood standards, but a lot of dough for an aspiring filmmaker with nary a feature to his credit. Somehow Carlei strung together enough cash to renew the option every year for more than a decade while he paid his dues. Few novice filmmakers feel strongly enough about literary properties to try to option them; fewer still have the financial wherewithal to maintain the screen rights for a dozen years; and even fewer A if any A eventually realize their vision on-screen. That Carlei finally lensed this film may have been the biggest fluke of all.

If life were truly like the movies, Carlei's film would go on to critical raves and massive box-office success. I wouldn't bet against the latter; the movie's awww-factor is high, and audiences never seem to tire of canine high jinks when motivated by the slimmest of plot tendrils. Besides, I learned the hard way long ago at several local tracks that I can't handicap dogs.

But speaking purely as a cranky movie critic, Fluke is a tough puppy to figure. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. (From the promotional materials I'd read, I figured the film would be a generic kiddie pet flick. It isn't.) At once deeper and more topical than standard Lassie-Benji-Beethoven fare, while simultaneously relying on canine charm and peeing-pooch sight gags to bolster its appeal, Fluke can't seem to decide whether to target an audience of kids, adults, or both. The central conceit of a remarkable canine undertaking an arduous cross-country journey to be reunited with the family he left behind is certainly nothing new and will hold little appeal for any but the youngest viewers. Yet the movie explores some fairly mature universal themes A dream fulfillment, familial love, coming to terms with loss, and admitting when you're wrong A and matter-of-factly accepts the decidedly non-Disneyesque concept of reincarnation. So which market is Carlei aiming for?

At least PETA should be thrilled with the scene in which a mutt liberates the animal residents of an evil cosmetics company's testing facility (culminating with the corny but irresistible image of a chimpanzee cradling a frightened little whelp and whisking it off to freedom). Then again, the movie doesn't show us what happens to all these animals now that they're running around loose in the city A the inevitable starvation, illness, and run-ins with humans that would happen in real life A but that would spoil the Free Willy effect.

Just as it did in Flight of the Innocent, Carlei's intent eluded me several times in Fluke. In the early going the filmmaker establishes an evil black-jacketed thug (Ron Perlman) as the movie's scowling villain, then forgets about him a third of the way into the picture. The film's main character, Fluke the dog, traverses the country on foot ostensibly to protect his prereincarnation human family from an unspecified threat (the assumption being that Perlman's bad guy is somehow involved) only to find that the real danger they are in is that which Fluke causes. Imagine Lassie rescuing people who aren't in trouble, attacking and almost killing a family friend she incorrectly decides is a bad guy, and then coming to the realization that the human she used to be was a jerk. The minute you see that a movie is about a dog, you expect A) clearly defined good and evil humans, and B) that the hound will be a noble hero, not a dull-witted, unenlightened interloper. Fluke sets those expectations on their floppy ears.

Dogs in motion pictures are rivaled only by babies as natural scene-stealers, and the mongrels in this movie hold up their end of the bargain. They come off as expressive, personable, and well-trained, which, come to think of it, pretty much sums up the acting of their human counterparts as well. But Carlei's sporadic use of man-within-a-dog voice-over narration to render his treacly observations on life's lessons learned raises the hackles like an angry cur's bark. By the time Fluke's inner voice launches a final soliloquy with, "I didn't know how to live as a man and I didn't know how to live as a dog," you want to call animal control and have him put to sleep


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