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Before discussing My Dog Skip, I want to talk about my dog, Grace, who has not appeared in this column since the release of Mark Lewis’ 1990 mockumentary, The Wonderful World of Dogs. Grace was then 5, in her fence-leaping, squirrel-terrorizing prime. As I reported then, we had struck a mutually beneficial deal: If I would provide food, shelter, and health care, she would obey a few simple commands, make her deposits outdoors, offer unconditional affection, and keep my bed warm.
Over the past decade, Grace and I have watched each other’s beards change from pigmented to gray. I’m still upholding my end of the bargain, which, in its medical-care aspect, has become pricier. Last year, I dropped a bundle on surgeries to remove irritating benign growths from her eyelid and her paw. These days, her vet, Kay, reports that—apart from a heart murmur too slight to treat—Grace’s only anomalous medical condition is her longevity. She’ll be 16 in May, quite remarkable for a 45-pound purebred vizsla who has retained all of her faculties. We’re expecting to hear from the Guinness people any day now.
Grace, however, has unilaterally revised our original agreement to her advantage. Except for a monthly slip or two, she remains steadfast on the issue of house soiling—not bad for a dog who is at least 110 years old in human terms. But obeying commands now seems as childish to her as catching tennis balls. She’ll disgustedly go through the motions only if I loudly insist on it a half-dozen times—an effort that leaves me hoarse and her grouchy. By now, she’s wholly confident that I’m not going to stop feeding her or toss her out into the snow.
And Grace has totally reneged on our other terms. She’s become so independent that she disdains being petted, and she amuses herself by tricking people into giving her food without letting them touch her. If I get down on the floor while she’s resting and very gently stroke her, she’ll suffer the procedure with the same teeth-gritting stoicism that Jane Fonda displayed in Klute, playing a hooker who feigned orgasms while glancing at her wristwatch. And Grace now prefers to sleep on one of her several beds than to cozy up with me. These days, I couldn’t lure her into the sack if I donned a rotisserie-chicken suit.
Contrary to cliche, however, she hasn’t stopped learning new tricks, some of them quite annoying. Recently, she’s figured out how to use her snout to snap on the overhead light switch in my Honda. If I leave her alone in the car for more than a few minutes, I return to find her bathed in battery-draining glow, looking extremely pleased with herself.
I suppose we’ve become a typical old couple, so accustomed to and reliant upon being together that we take each other for granted. But, as in many relationships, there are a lover and a beloved, and I clearly am trapped in the former role. At least once a day, a glimpse of her goes straight to my heart and makes me apprehensive about how much time remains for us to share.
As one who finds dogs far better company than all but a few people, I’m a pushover for canine-themed films. Garbo’s exquisite expiration in Camille doesn’t move me half so deeply as the demise of any scroungy B-movie mutt. To brace myself for Jay Russell’s film, My Dog Skip, I read its literary source, Willie Morris’ reminiscence of his Yazoo, Miss., boyhood companion, a clever, loyal fox terrier. Morris’ skimpy book isn’t a linear narrative but a series of nonchronological sketches, smoothly written but conventional, stuffed with the inescapable cliches of Southern writing. In the first 35 pages, there are references to Moon Pies, Nehi soda, good old boys sitting on porches whittling and spitting tobacco juice, mournful blues wafting from a black juke joint, a Faulkner novel, and somebody named Bubba.
The answer to the question of how director Russell managed to make a movie of Morris’ fragmentary reflections is, of course, that he hasn’t. He’s engaged screenwriter Gail Gilchriest to select a handful of incidents from Morris’ book and entomb them in a plot-heavy scenario of her own devising that reduces Skip’s role to a supporting player in a heavily fictionalized version of young Willie’s life. Gilchriest’s other credits—adapting books by Eudora Welty and Fannie Flagg as well as writing Bubbas & Beaus, an anatomy of Southern manhood—must have made her appear to be a natural candidate for the job.
The screenwriter has come up with a set of pasteboard characters that have no counterparts in Morris’ book. These include a stern father (Kevin Bacon) who lost a leg in the Spanish Civil War, a supportive mother (Diane Lane) whose sole plot function is to purchase Skip, a local high school sports hero (Luke Wilson) who befriends Willie but returns from World War II an alcoholic coward, and three neighborhood bullies who regard the boy as a bookish sissy. Most of the dramatic confrontations are also Gilchriest’s inventions, notably a jarring baseball-field sequence in which the frustrated Willie disgusts spectators by punching Skip and a scene in which a bootlegger clobbers the dog with a shovel. You have to question why these unsettling, gratuitously sadistic episodes were shoehorned into what is ostensibly family entertainment.
My Dog Skip begins promisingly, with a leisurely, mood-setting reconstruction of Yazoo in the early ’40s. The production, shot in Canton, Miss., pays painstaking attention to decor and costumes, evoking an idyllic past reinforced by William Ross’ melodic if overly lush orchestral score. But Gilchriest’s pileup of underdeveloped characters and story lines soon smothers the film’s nostalgic charm. (Yet another subplot, about a young black athlete, is so sketchy that it can be construed only as a sop to political correctness.) The adult performers, particularly Bacon and Wilson, work diligently to enhance their two-dimensional roles, but square-faced Frankie Muniz, star of the Fox midseason hit television series Malcolm in the Middle, isn’t very expressive as Willie. Even worse, Skip, an English fox terrier, is played by several Jack Russell terriers. I suppose we should be grateful that they didn’t cast a Saint Bernard.
Drowning Mona opens with Bette Midler plunging off a cliff in a yellow Yugo and drowning in a river, taking with her what little remains of her expiring movie career. This debacle, following close on the heels of the unspeakable Isn’t She Great, leaves you wondering whether she didn’t consciously choose the two worst scripts submitted to her so she could build up a retirement fund and make herself unemployable. I doubt that any actress who wanted to remain a screen star would accept a role as demeaning (and minuscule) as Mona or allow herself to be photographed as a hatchet-faced slattern.
Screenwriter Peter Steinfeld, making his feature debut, has attempted to create a hip, edgy comedy, but the result is stupid, ugly, and mean. His plot gimmick—the mysterious murder of a hateful woman in a small town whose residents all have reasons to kill her—purloins the mainspring of Jim Thompson’s 1957 novel, The Kill-Off, amateurishly filmed in 1989 by writer-director Maggie Greenwald. (Thompson, in turn, appears to have borrowed heavily from Agatha Christie’s 1934 everybody-dunit Murder on the Orient Express.)
The movie is set in Verplanck, N.Y., a Hudson River village, unconvincingly impersonated by Sierra Madre, Calif. Police chief Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito) attempts to discover who disabled the brakes of Mona Dearly’s car. The suspects include her henpecked husband, Phil (William Fichtner), and their semi-retarded, one-handed son, Jeff (Marcus Thomas), both of whom are having sex with hard-as-nails waitress Rona Mace (Jamie Lee Curtis). Other possible culprits include Jeff’s exasperated gardening business partner, Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck, who speaks his lines in a grating high-pitched voice), and Bobby’s fiancee, the cop’s daughter, Ellen Rash (Neve Campbell). Midler’s appearances are restricted to a few brief, nasty flashbacks.
Director Nick Gomez won applause with his 1991 Scorsese-cloned first feature, Laws of Gravity, then lost it with the self-indulgent 1996 drug-dealer flop, Illtown. Recently, he’s redeemed himself with small-screen episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO’s prison series, Oz. Drowning Mona proves that Gomez hasn’t the instinct or talent for directing comedy, least of all the treacherous subgenre of white-trash black farce. In Gomez’s hands, Steinfeld’s misanthropic japes emerge as leaden and callous. But then, how much humor could anybody extract from a screenplay whose two biggest yuks are the main characters driving Yugos with customized license plates and Jeff trying to play the guitar with his stump? CP