By MANOHLA DARGIS, Times Staff Writer
The rumpled low-key charmer "The Dogwalker" opens with a good-looking man in a bad-looking suit spouting hard-boiled dialogue. His words sound vaguely like warmed-over Raymond Chandler--there's something about a "Darwinian tempest"--and initially it seems as if this is yet another of those Los Angeles detective stories soaked in sunshine and nihilism.
The perception isn't wholly misguided: The film's tough-guy voice-over, along with a snarling sexpot and an old man's vanity, are borrowed from Chandler's "The Big Sleep," as is the smog of absurdity that hangs over the story and city alike. Yet this isn't a retooled genre piece, the tale of a guy and his gun, but an amiably idiosyncratic work that suggests that if Tom Sawyer had been born in the Southland, he might well have grown up to become Kato Kaelin, his playfulness ripened into sly opportunism.
A disreputable beach type with sun-kissed highlights and drowsy bedroom eyes, Jerry Cooper (Will Stewart) claims to have once sold insurance and now lives in a feral white Continental that, much like its owner, spends more time in park than in drive. He's a psychological blank with no home and no history; he looks born to hustle, and that's pretty much what he does even when his heart doesn't seem in it. There's a sense that Jerry has been drifting for years (most of the time his car doesn't even run), that he's one those guys who hangs at the edges of Los Angeles waiting for someone to notice how pretty he is and just maybe pay for the privilege of noticing.
Written and directed by Paul Duran, whose first feature was a heist movie with the alarming name of "Flesh Suitcase," "The Dogwalker" has something of a story, but retelling it wouldn't leave the film with many surprises. Suffice it to say that Jerry falls in with an old lady, Alma (Carol Gustafson), and her bull mastiff and that the slacker and his equally dodgy friends (Tony Todd, Cress Williams and Walter Emanuel Jones) end up entangled in Alma's life. Relationships develop with tender humor, as does some ill-considered drama. A couple of Alma's friends, a pair of elderly romantics Sam Steele (Allan Rich) and Ike Noodleman (John Randolph), are somehow involved, as are her daughter (Stepfanie Kramer) and granddaughter (Nicki Aycox). The actors are uniformly good, though Todd and Randolph, as a rheumy-eyed addict and a fragile relic who forge an unlikely bond, are even better.
Since its premiere in 1999 at (of all places) the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, "The Dogwalker" has been making the festival rounds. (A different feature titled "The Dogwalker" screened at this year's Los Angeles Film Festival.) Small movies without stars and big money often follow this route, but it's too bad it took this film so long to secure a release, especially in the city it captures with such gentle idealism.
Certainly "The Dogwalker" is a long way from perfect. Too many scenes are underwritten and aimless, and a late swerve into tragedy feels forced, as if Duran, after assembling his collection of eccentrics, couldn't figure out how to get them safely to the finish. This is, after all, a film in which no one leads life according to script--but, then, that's also the reason it works.
Unrated. Times guidelines: There's some clothed sexual flailing but nothing graphic; more graphic is the representation of intravenous illegal drug use, which may be hard for the squeamish.
A Rita Films production, released by Outrider
Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset
Blvd., West Hollywood (323)848-3500.
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