Back in 1992, manic comedian Bobcat Goldthwait made a pretty odd — but not unimpressive — debut as a writer-director with a little movie called Shakes the Clown, in which he also starred (joined by a pre-stardom Adam Sandler and a few surprising guests like Robin Williams and Florence Henderson). This singularly twisted look at the inner lives of clowns — especially Goldthwait’s alcoholic title character — was a modest cult favorite, but not enough of one to pave the way for a filmmaking career.
So here we are 15 years later, and the Bobcat is back with his second feature film — the more than pretty odd Sleeping Dogs Lie. The story follows what happens when a young woman, Amy (TV actress Melinda Page Hamilton), decides to be completely honest with her boyfriend, John (TV actor Bryce Johnson), and confess that one afternoon when she was 18 and bored, she had an intimate encounter of the oral kind with her dog, Rufus.
The name guest stars are nowhere to be found this time, which is hardly surprising given the deliberately shocking concept. Similarly absent is any trace of production values (the film looks like it cost about $50 to make). This is down-and-dirty filmmaking; yet, despite its premise, it’s not a “dirty” film. Yes, the setup is provocative, and it’s played for a combination of laughs and gross-out value, especially the event itself (not shown, of course) and Amy’s subsequent fantasy about using the story as the ultimate icebreaker at a party.
And to a certain extent, the first section of the film — up to the point when Amy confesses her youthful indiscretion — keeps something of that tone, causing it to feel a bit like a one-joke affair, fleshed out with stock indie-film quirky characters. In that regard, we have the humorously protective and somewhat transparently in-love-with-Amy best friend, Ed (TV actor Colby French). There’s also Amy’s family — hard-ass dad (TV actor Geoff Pierson), supposedly uptight, upright mom (Bonita Friedericy, Akeelah and the Bee) and loser meth-addict brother, Dougie (Jack Plotnick, Gods and Monsters), who seems to exist mostly to overhear Amy’s confession to John so he can spill the beans elsewhere. The characters are amusing enough, but the movie feels too much like it’s just spinning its wheels.
However, once the cat (or dog) is out of the bag, the film takes a different turn and becomes both thoughtful and moving — sweet funny rather than sleazy funny. It also becomes something unusual — possibly unique. I can’t think of another film that so directly and actively tackles the question of the actual value of honesty. It’s just not a topic that surfaces too often. I’m not sure why, except that we’re taught from the cradle that honesty is the best policy and that confession is good for the soul, etc. Sleeping Dogs questions this — and makes the viewer question it, or at least reassess the motivation behind it. Maybe the clue to the whole idea of utter honesty lies in the idea that it’s “good for the soul,” which raises the question of whose soul. Is the act for the benefit of the ones hearing the confession, or is it for the benefit of the one doing the confessing? We’ve all done stupid or embarrassing things, but whom are we serving by sharing the knowledge of them? Is the expiation of the vague guilt for those things worth the harm it may cause to ourselves and others? These are the central questions the film explores — and it does so with no little wit and perception.
On a technical level, Sleeping Dogs isn’t much of a movie, but it’s worth considering for its ultimate theme, and for the terrific performances of Melinda Page Hamilton and Bonita Friedericy. If you miss it in the theater — it won’t be around long — catch up with it on DVD sometime (it may in fact look better on TV). Rated R for strong and aberrant sexual content, drug use and language.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke