The debut directorial feature from Joe Burke, “Four Dogs,” could be aptly subtitled, “Down and Out in Hollywood,” as it centers on Oliver (Oliver Cooper), a struggling actor, and his acting class buddy, Dan (Dan Bakkedahl). But in actuality, the Hollywood struggle story is really only a surface conceit; the film is really about the love and support one can find in the unlikeliest of people and relationships. Largely improvised, and willfully blurring reality and fiction, “Four Dogs” straddles the line between drama and comedy. Unflinchingly honest in its portrayal of this little pocket of humanity, it finds both the pathos and humor in the moments of real life that are truly funny and truly sad.
Oliver Cooper plays himself as young struggling actor Oliver, living in his aunt Becca’s (Rebecca Goldstein) house, walking her dogs, and taking care of the house while she is away working as a flight attendant. Becca (and her dogs) play themselves in her real house. Oliver’s friend Dan is twice his age, but they seem to meet in the middle; Oliver’s a bit of a 40 year old man, and Dan acts like a 20 year old boy, especially when it comes to girls. Speaking of girls, a friend of Becca’s, Diane (Kathleen McNeary) comes to stay for a few days, ostensibly for a conference, but really because her marriage is in crisis, and she strikes up an unlikely connection with Oliver. Surrounding them all are four small, yappy dogs, turning in surprisingly nuanced supporting performances (special attention must be paid to the three-legged Simka, who goes by Louie in the film—a natural performer).
While this film could fall into the trap of just portraying Oliver’s mundane everyday life of smoking pot, walking the dogs, and grabbing lunch with his buddy, it’s well-structured and edited to carry a real story thrust along with it. We’re curious about Diane, about Oliver and Dan’s friendship, if Dan will get the gig (and the girl), and about how Becca fits into all of this— an unlikely but loving family. The warmth they have for each other is apparent, and that is largely due to the wonderful presence of Becca, who gives a surprisingly emotional, warm, and nuanced performance for a non-professional actor. Her energy, which is imbued in the house and the dogs, and the way she interacts with the Cooper and Bakkedahl, infuses the environment of the film with a lightness and irreverence.
While Oliver’s experience is what drives “Four Dogs,” the friendship between him and Dan is truly beautiful to behold (even though that seems odd to say), as there is an effortlessness to which they get each other and to which they support each other. Because of the improvised nature of the script, this onscreen relationship comes from Cooper and Bakkedahl’s very real rapport (they met on the set of a Funny or Die short Burke directed). One scene towards the end of the film makes explicit some of the questions the audience might have about just why these two are hanging out, and in one long take (Burke doesn’t edit the scene at all) these two actors improvise what appears to be an extraordinarily well-written scene about the nature of their relationship and who they are as individuals.
Cooper — who comes off as a more affable, better looking Jonah Hill — isn’t the sad sack downer that one might initially take him as. He’s got a sort of inherently sunny disposition, despite his lot in life in the film, and just watching him amuse himself, trying out different characters or ruminating on an interaction with someone is just plain funny. Burke knows this, and just lets the camera roll on Cooper, confident he will capture something hilarious and real. The film is also expertly edited to highlight and juxtapose these moments, so it never feels like it’s lagging or slow. Cooper is so likable that even an early scene with a prostitute manages to be… endearing? This won’t be the last you see of Cooper, as the 23-year-old actor is in the upcoming season of “Californication” and will be in the Ben Affleck/Justin Timberlake poker thriller “Runner Runner.” Equally as great is Bakkedahl, an experienced Second City improviser (and supporting character on “Veep,” delivering some of Armando Iannucci’s best insults), who fits right into this already existing world. Again, Burke allows their connection to shine, and lets Bakkedahl do his thing, whether he’s trying to be cool with a pot dealer or at party.
A truly hilarious film, “Four Dogs” earns its laughs by taking the time to establish these characters (people, really) and the very real world in which they exist, so that in those moments it never feels like a written joke, but just an honestly funny moment between friends, which makes it that much funnier. The same goes for those sad, or awkward, or just weird moments too. Ultimately, while it seems to be a film about the Hollywood struggle, it’s really about how people can find and support each other in a variety of different relationships and interactions. We know we’ll be seeing more from Cooper and Bakkedahl, but Burke’s refreshingly honest and authentic approach and his skill in depicting and shaping reality onscreen is also something we’re looking forward to seeing more of soon. [A-]