[Screen It]

(1999) (Luke Wilson, Natasha Henstridge) (R)

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Romantic Comedy: A self-described serial monogamist finds himself falling for the host of a children's TV show, who wants nothing to do with him, after both find themselves recently being dumped by their significant others.
Andy (LUKE WILSON) is a self-described serial monogamist and classified ad writer who's recently been dumped by his girlfriend, Cheryl (KATHLEEN ROBERTSON). She's moved out with their dog, Mogley, in favor of Trevor (GORDON CURRIE), a punk rocker with a penchant for routinely changing his hair color. The fact that they have joint custody of the dog, however, sends the recently split couple and their pooch to Dr. Cavan (MARK McKINNEY), a renowned animal psychologist.

Having dinner at a singles bar, Andy's bad fortune seems to change when he meets Lorna (NATASHA HENSTRIDGE), a.k.a. Ms. Bookworm, the host of a children's TV show. She's recently been dumped as well, and despite her believing Andy's genuine friendliness to be a come on, she returns home with him. Even so, nothing happens as she gets sick from a bit too much drinking that night.

Andy immediately falls for her, but she's embarrassed about the night before and decides not to see him again. This is despite the advice of her friend, Rachel (AMIE CAREY), who tells Lorna that dating gets tougher the older one gets. Nonetheless, Lorna ends up going out with an odd character, Callum (HARLAND WILLIAMS), who picks her up in a video store.

Meanwhile, Andy's good friend and coworker, Jeri (JANEANE GAROFALO), and her steady boyfriend, Jeff (BRUCE McCULLOCH), encourage Andy to return to the dating scene. As such, and after being bought by Keiran (KRISTIN LEHMAN) at a charity auction, Andy starts dating her and she soon moves in with him.

He still longs for Lorna, however, and upon seeing her and her dog, Peanut, in the local dog park, hopes that something might work out between them. As this continues and the dog owners prepare for their pets' big graduation day from obedience school, the romantic lives of all those involved become more complicated than any initially imagined they could be.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
A common saying in show business is never to work with children or animals since both are inclined to upstage their adult counterparts whenever not throwing tantrums or leaving "little surprises" on the set or in their dressing room. While I can't vouch for the backstage behavior of the canines in Bruce McCulloch's latest stab at the romantic comedy genre, "Dog Park," I can attest that they're certainly far more interesting and entertaining than their human counterparts.

A lackluster and less than involving look at the world of relationships -- both human to human and human to animal -- the film may appeal to those who enjoy watching pets, but otherwise this mediocre work is purely for the dogs. With absolutely nothing new to bring to either the romantic comedy genre or an examination of dating in the nineties, the film is a boring and weak effort.

Despite their higher "entertainment quotient" then their more "evolved" co-stars, even the dogs are given the short shrift here. While it's obvious that the film isn't meant to focus on them, the same held true for "As Good As It Gets" and still does for the TV show "Fraser." Yet, the little pooches in both that great film and clever TV program nearly steal the show whenever they appear on the screen.

That's not the case here where the canines end up just as forgettable as the humans. Perhaps that's because former "Kids in the Hall" member Bruce McCulloch's wearing of too many hats obscured his vision. Making one's directorial debut is difficult enough in and upon itself, but juggling the logistics of that along with penning the story and even appearing in it clearly take their toll on this film's outcome.

As it stands, for a romantic comedy, the film isn't particularly that romantic or funny, although its refusal to follow, scene by scene, the standard genre playbook (where the man and woman don't initially get along, then become friends, romantically involved, break up, time passes and they then get back together) is a welcomed change.

Unfortunately, that bucking of tradition is about the only thing noteworthy about the film. Otherwise, its plot and dialogue are flat, as are the performances from most of the cast despite some forced eccentricity found in a few supporting roles.

As the lead character, Luke Wilson ("Blue Streak," "Home Fries") is about as far from a romantic leading man as one could possibly get. Although not every such leading character needs to be a Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal type person, and Wilson appropriately plays a melancholy, recently dumped guy, he's so flat and less than interesting that you can't find any reason to root his romantic success, let alone imagine why any woman would want to date him in the first place.

Playing his counterpart, Natasha Henstridge ("Species," "Maximum Risk") is certainly nice to look at, but similarly inhabits a flat and shallowly written character. You want to like her, but don't find any compelling reason to have any feelings -- positive or negative -- about her. As such, neither Julia Roberts nor Meg Ryan needs to be concerned about any new competition from her for leading roles in romantic comedies.

Supporting performances -- from the likes of Janeane Garofalo ("Mystery Men," and that other dog psychiatrist film, "The Truth About Cats and Dogs") doing her normal, somewhat cynical best friend schtick, Kristin Lehman ("Alaska") as Andy's sex-crazed girlfriend and Kathleen Robertson (TV's "Beverly Hills 90210") as his ex-girlfriend -- are likewise rather unremarkable.

The only notable character is that played by fellow "Kids in the Hall" alumni Mark McKinney ("The Out- of-Towners") as the dog psychiatrist who gets the film's best, but rare moments. Even so, the character's eccentricity feels too staged and forced, thus ruining what could have been some fun, diversionary scenes.

Other forced bits include the fact that the couple's ex-lovers are now dating, a prolonged moment where Cheryl and Trevor try to decide whether to have sex or eat first (by repeating the same lines over and over with only minor variations), and a confrontational, but poorly written moment between Andy and Jeff about the latter's roving ways. Then there's the whole bit regarding Loran turning down Andy's request to go on a date (understandable), but then quickly agreeing to the same with a creepy guy (more forced eccentricity by Harland Williams) that most women would flee from in a heartbeat.

The film's biggest problem, though, is that there's simply no chemistry amongst the characters, particularly between the leads. Whether it's their first awkward meeting or their final reunion, we never sense any sparks. That's accentuated by the fact that we don't really care about any of them nor are given the chance to do so at any point during the film. Not surprisingly, that's a big no-no for any sort of romantic picture, be it a comedy or a drama, and all of it results in a boring film that never connects with the audience.

Given no reason to care about the characters or their relationships, and forced to watch and listen to flat characters and their dialogue, it's doubtful that any moviegoers who happen to see this film will be recommending it to their friends. We certainly won't, and for all of those reasons, "Dog Park" rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed September 23, 1999 / Posted September 24, 1999

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