Beast of Show

See Spot Run wins 'Dog of the Week' award

Let it not be said that See Spot Run is without its distinctions. For instance, it is, in all likelihood, the first movie for kids featuring comic castration. It's also probably the first movie of any kind that subjects its leading lady to explosively ignited zebra flatulence. And then there's the scene of the star getting his butt impaled on the spines of several sea urchins, with wacky high jinks arising from the resulting paralysis.

What's amazing about See Spot Run is that, granting how wretched it looks from the trailers and TV ads, it's actually so very much worse even than that. If you go in with the faint hope that it might be stupidly funny on a sort of Three Stooges level, you're apt to leave with a newfound respect for the Stooges shorts as cinema.

But it does have dogs. One dog in particular, the bull mastiff that plays the title role, actually gives a pretty good performance: He has a tough, no-nonsense bearing reminiscent of Bogart, and he has the good sense to look embarrassed. He, more than any of his human co-stars, deserves better.

Well, more than any of his grown-up co-stars, anyway. There's a little kid, Angus T. Jones, who comes across more convincingly than most of the Petri dish-grown moppets that appear in American films. He's pudgy-faced and gap-toothed, and he's somehow able to work up some very genuine-sounding belly laughs over the clowning of the star, David Arquette, which suggests that he's either an acting prodigy or more generous than most of the kids in the audience.

The plot has a mob boss putting a hit on a drug-sniffing FBI canine agent. Narrowly escaping a pair of bumbling hit men, the animal takes refuge with Gordon (Arquette), a goofy bachelor mailman. Though Gordon has his profession's traditional aversion to dogs, he takes in the agent, now called Spot (though he's spotless), in order to win over the aforementioned neighbor kid, whose mother Gordon would like to get cozy with.

After taking a mini-eternity to set up this routine structure, the director, an episodic TV vet named John Whitesell, then crosscuts between several strands of action, all of them equally clumsy and unfunny. A couple of them are also unseemly, even queasy: The stereotypical gangster has been relieved of one of his testicles by Spot; this is the source of his vendetta. Spot's burly FBI partner suffers a seemingly romantic agony over the animal's absence. Most creepily and gratuitously, somehow, the kid's mom, played by Leslie Bibb, is repeatedly covered with filth as she hitchhikes her way home, in an anal-expulsive spin on Catherine O'Hara's role in Home Alone.

See Spot Run is really intended as a vehicle for Arquette, who is by no means an untalented buffoon. In some of his earlier work, especially the Scream films, he's shown an endearing soft dimness, narrowing his eyes with the painful effort of thinking. In that way he's a bit like Keanu Reeves, without the sullen stiffness. And Arquette displays some uninhibited physical-comedy abandon -- though no real discipline -- in his long-distance commercials on TV. But some modest ability to be funny in certain contexts does not equal comic genius. Nor does it equal the ability to carry a feature film, even a low comedy aimed at kids. Arquette is given no good jokes, not even any slapstick routines that aren't wearily derivative. And so his infantile behavior doesn't develop into a persona; his shticks just lie there like what Spot leaves on the lawn.

There is, maybe, a bit of grim amusement in watching a couple of slumming prestige players cringe their way through this mess. Michael Clarke Duncan of The Green Mile, who plays the FBI man, looks miserable. More alarming is Paul Sorvino, as the castrato capo: He doesn't look miserable. This greatly talented actor seems to have reached the point where he no longer minds being asked to walk through the same role again and again in crappy movies.

 
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