Thor Freudenthal, “Hotel for Dogs” (2009).


If you were to watch just one movie this year that included in its cast the most talented actress from a major ’90s television show*, dealt with themes of companionship and marginality, and depicted the daily, desperate struggle of the protagonist(s) – themselves barely capable from keeping hunger at arm’s length – to buy food for their canine companion, then it should probably be Kelly Reichardt’s critically-acclaimed Wendy and Lucy. I haven’t seen it yet, but, as irresponsible as this may sound, I’m fairly positive it’ll be better than Hotel for Dogs. Many movies will be.

The titular hotel is a condemned building remarkably free of graffiti and junkies, and home to two dogs. This is where a group of kids – in particular, the orphaned brother-sister duo of Andi (Emma Roberts) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin), bounced around from one foster home to another – hatch up a plan to adopt all the strays they can find in the city and take care of them in the old hotel.

The movie actually isn’t the pratfall-riddled, dogpoop-filled comedy the previews make it look like, although the filmmakers couldn’t resist inserting some of both. Hotel for Dogs is at least a little edgier than your regular Saturday-afternoon multiplex kiddie flick – our two protagonists engage in some creative petty thievery, for instance – but not by much.

Lisa Kudrow is largely wasted as the Evil Stepmother figure; she plays a lazy foster mother and an untalented rock singer who’s clearly a pale echo of Phoebe Buffay in her “Smelly Cat” days. That’s one of the odd things about the casting for Hotel for Dogs, which seems more like poorly-executed in-jokes: there’s also “a young Zac Efron”, and “a young Jonah Hill” from Superbad, right down to his boorish character. (The dog casting, on the other hand, is flawless; I couldn’t count the number of times the entire audience went “Awwwwwwwwwwww” in unison.)

Hotel for Dogs, at least, prompts some thinking about the idea of the urban streets and the way its denizens – its stray dogs, its street waifs, its “vagabonds” and “squatters” and “tramps” and “hobos” – are automatically stigmatized by virtue of their lack of containment. They’re everywhere, they’re unstable, they’re not fixed – and thus, the need for a place to call home, even if it’s an abandoned hotel. (The “real” homeless apparently don’t count, though, because they’re scrubbed clean from this film.)

I also liked the way the movie sets up a comparison between the dogs and the orphans, their parallel quests for belonging, and their similar street smarts (notably seen in Bruce’s Rube Goldberg-like contraptions, all cobbled-together bits of machinery constructed to act as surrogate parents). It’s all geared towards, most poignant of all, the Big Lesson at the end delivered by Don Cheadle, whose acting talents are unfortunately similarly squandered: that what’s most important is not what the state mandates in terms of kinship, but about the families we choose.

It’s when the movie affirms the dogs’ ownership of the streets that Freudenthal displays more visual flair. There’s a sequence where a few dozen dogs are running pell-mell through the city, causing passersby to gape and creating traffic jams right and left; it’s the best scene in the entire movie, and probably because there aren’t any humans in it.

*No room for debate here, folks: Lisa Kudrow, if now somewhat limited in her acting roles, was clearly the best performer on Friends, and Michelle Williams wiped the floor with everyone else on Dawson’s Creek.

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