Oliver (Oliver Cooper) is your typical twenty-something with big dreams but little motivation to really pursue them. He lives with his Aunt Becca (Rebecca Goldstein) and spends his days hanging out with his former acting classmate Dan (Dan Bakkedahl). Oliver is a sweet kid but also a dreamer who seems much too content wiling away his days doing random chores around the house and spending time with his friend.
Four Dogs gives audiences a natural look into Oliver’s world without placing him in an overly complicated narrative or one surrounded by metaphors. However, this simple conceit works as Cooper delivers a captivating performance making Oliver awkward, funny and honest all at once. Cooper may be an “out of work actor,” but the different characters he tries out while bored at home show a real sense of comedic brilliance, proving Oliver may have some true talent and be more than a kid with stars in his eyes.
The only thing that disrupts Oliver’s routine is the arrival of Diane (Kathleen McNearney), a friend of Becca’s who comes to stay at the house. Oliver goes from passively watching life pass him by to focusing his attention on the visitor. Director Joe Burke utilizes interesting camera angles, such as shooting the reflection off a mirror or keeping the camera eye level with someone sitting down when everyone else is standing, which create a voyeuristic feeling as Oliver tries to navigate his emotions towards this new person in the house.
Unfortunately, the introduction of Diane feels like an unnecessary addition rather than an interesting new element, especially when Four Dogs is at its best in the scenes featuring Cooper and Bakkedahl. The latter’s Dan is comic relief without needing to be, naturally making hilarious comments that Cooper deftly and quickly plays off of. The two have an easygoing rapport that feels like two skilled actors playing out a handful of improv scenes set in real life scenarios, such as driving around town or going to a party (plus a funny trip to Oliver’s dealer’s house).
While his and Dan’s relationship is entertaining, the true heart of the film comes from Oliver’s relationships with Becca’s four dogs. She admits she has a favorite (even though she shouldn’t), and while it seems as though Oliver is not fond of any of the dogs, one of the film’s most poignant moments proves his true heart and compassion. This turning point shows Oliver is not simply a one dimensional kid who is a bit careless and potentially taking advantage of his aunt’s free crash pad. Oliver is a good person and has some solid relationships with the people in his life. He is just a little bit lost at the moment.
Cooper helped pen the script along with Burke, and while no major revelations are explored through the film, it is a charming narrative and inspiring in the moments when Oliver, even though down on his own luck, gets sincerely happy for his friends finding success. Oliver may be lazy, but the film is never boring and moves at a nice pace to keep it from feeling like a more stripped-down take on Rear Window or Disturbia.
Four Dogs is a solid story, but focusing on Oliver pursuing his comedic talent, rather than getting lost down the dead end that is his infatuation with Diane, would have created a slightly stronger and potentially funnier narrative overall.
The Upside: Easy going, charming narrative; impressive comedic performances from both Cooper and Bakkedahl; solid first feature from Burke about a bored kid without being boring.
The Downside: Would like to have seen more of Oliver’s characters; the inclusion of Diane is unnecessary.
On the Side: You can check out a different side of Bakkedahl as rude and combative Congressman, Roger Furlong, on HBO’s Veep.
Editor’s Note: We posted this review back at LAFF 2013. We’re running it again because Four Dogs is now available to rent/buy on Vimeo On Demand.