A Dog's Purpose

Looks like this little whippersnapper made a boo-boo!

Joe Lederer

‘A Dog’s Purpose’
Lasse Hallstrom
Stars: Josh Gad (voice), Dennis Quaid
Rating: PG
2 (out of 5) Globes

An unholy marriage of “The Idiot’s Guide to Existentialism” and Animal Planet’s “Too Cute!” shows, “A Dog’s Purpose” stars the voice of Josh Gad as a reincarnating dog spirit who opens the film by asking, “What is the meaning of life?” The movie seems to supply an answer: It immediately cuts to newborn puppies. But a more thoughtful (but not that thoughtful) response takes another two hours to arrive. Till then, witness the strangest studio picture since “Collateral Beauty,” which ambitiously ponders the cosmos amidst a plethora of dog POV shots, like one that allows us to witness butt-sniffing first-hand, and another where we get to see what it’s like to die.

To its credit, “A Dog’s Purpose” is tough for PG-rated pet porn. The first death comes within the first minute. Gad’s free-floating mutt keeps coming back, though, spending the longest stretch in the 1960s, where he inhabits a golden retriever named Bailey who declares “ownership” of a young boy (Bryce Gheisar). (Ha ha, it’s the other way around, isn’t it? Makes you think.) He’ll age and die, or he’ll get shot by a slimy kidnapper and die, only to return each instance as a pup, ready to go again. One time he even switches genders, like a mongrel version of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” only with more farting dog jokes.

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Throughout, our canine hero asks the big questions, though the answers tend to make “Chicken Soup for the Soul” seem like a J.G. Ballard dystopia. The movie may ultimately and unexpectedly turn into a Nicholas Sparks movie — it figures, since director Lasse Hallstrom made two Sparks films, as well as “My Life as a Dog” and “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” — but “A Dog’s Purpose” is more like “Forrest Gump” but with dogs. After two hours of embracing the inevitability of death as a way of coping with a potentially meaningless void, it peddles the “Gump”-ian line that perhaps not thinking is the way to a happier life. Maybe it takes a narrating mongrel to teach us what Kierkegaard never could.

In between it offers Gad switching between sensitive and gee-whiz, between wry or brooding observations and in-the-moment exclamations, as though the narration track kept toggling between “A Christmas Story” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” (It also adds the terms “meat logs,” i.e., hot dogs, and “horse dog,” i.e., a jackass, to the lexicon.) It’s a strange beast, this movie that tries to have it both ways, which is to say dark and cute. And dammit if it still sporadically stabs right at the heart of anyone who grew up with a pet — provided they can ignore its unthinking disdain for single people, alcoholics and especially the lower class.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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