It was a surreal feeling to step outside onto the streets of Los Angeles after a screening of Joe Burke’s “Four Dogs,” a film that’s so thoroughly evocative of the lives of so many who reside in the heart of a city that revolves around the entertainment industry and yet find themselves on the fringe as unemployed or underemployed just trying to entertain themselves. Ostensibly a comedy, it has a few hysterically funny moments, but the film which was penned by Burke and his lead actor Oliver Cooper, engages in something that aims to unsettle as it amuses in following a twentysomething who wastes his days at his aunt’s house in the valley.
That young man is Oliver, who has somehow managed to accrue enough disposable income to support his pot smoking habit and the occasional visit from a prostitute while lacking the ambition to do anything beyond walking the titular pets of his aunt’s (Rebecca Goldstein). His dabbling in an acting class landed him a likeminded friend in Dan (Dan Bakkedahl), who is 15 years his elder, but little else and although the introduction of Diane (Kathleen McNearney), the comely daughter of a friend of his aunt’s, would seem to be the start of the central story, “Four Dogs” proves to be as sprawling as Los Angeles, even if its main subject rarely leaves the house. There are visits to his crotchety weed dealer and frequent lunches with Dan at a nearby Indian restaurant to lament the callbacks his friend isn’t getting, but it’s telling that when Oliver musters up the courage to ask Diane to go a party, the conversation in the drive over is substantially more exciting than the party itself.
Such a laid-back narrative constructed out of these portraits of Oliver’s daily routine belie the amount of skill and detail Burke and crew have put into achieving such an unobstructed view of a life of minor frustrations. Cinematographer Todd Banhazi’s crisp framing which often leaves the characters at the edge of a frame, all as they seemingly desire to seize the center of it, convey a quiet desperation that allow the actors to keep things loose, while Burke demonstrates great patience in letting scenes play out so that Oliver can either enjoy his small victories or wallow in his defeats. Also as obvious connoisseurs of the weird and uncomfortable, Cooper and Burke live and die by pushing any given situation past its expected end point to enjoy the messy aftermath, a quality that pays greater dividends as the film wears on even if it takes some adjustment at first.
Perhaps that’s also a fair warning for those who have seen far too many films about aimless layabouts who refuse to grow up, which “Four Dogs” inevitably is at its core. However, that same description can’t be applied to Burke, who exhibits a mature voice and a distinctive eye behind the camera. Though I occasionally wished there were a few more guttural laughs to be had, the film is a gut punch nonetheless, a slice of life that cuts unexpectedly deep.