'Old Dogs'

Shrill comedy is made for audiences looking for unchallenging laughs with familiar faces.

John Travolta and Robin Williams make an amiable team as middle-age bachelors suddenly handed parental duties in “Old Dogs.” Too bad this shrilly tuned comedy doesn’t demand more than clock-punching effort from everyone involved. Nonetheless, as Travolta and helmer Walt Becker’s prior Mouse House exercise, “Wild Hogs,” proved, there’s an underserved audience out there ready for unchallenging laughs with familiar faces and little or no Judd Apatow-style raunch. Prospects look solid.

Lifelong friends who co-own a Manhattan-based sports marketing firm, Charlie (Travolta) and Dan (Robin Williams) have passed the age of likely fatherhood, which is fine since neither feels any particular affinity for kids. Charlie is an unrepentant womanizer, while Dan is the veteran of two failed marriages — the latter a drunken Miami rebound affair, quickly annulled.

But seven years later, that second ex-wife, Vicki (Kelly Preston), suddenly shows up with the news that Dan is in fact the father of her twins. Since Vicki is about to do two weeks’ jailtime for trespassing in an environmental protest, she figures this as good a time as any for Dad to spend quality time with 7-year-olds Zach (Conner Rayburn) and Emily (Ella Bleu Travolta, John’s daughter).

Then an unfortunate accident sidelines Vicki’s best friend (Rita Wilson), necessitating that Dan step in as the fortnight’s full-time babysitter. Charlie becomes this awkward new family’s reluctant host when Dan gets bounced from his no-children-allowed condo.

Script by David Diamond and David Weissman is formulaic in outline yet almost arbitrary in detail, lurching from one half-baked slapstick setpiece to the next. These include a camping expedition with Matt Dillon as a humorless troupe leader (plus an unbilled Justin Long as a psycho fellow dad); a golf game with Japanese executives (Saburo Shimono, Kevin W. Yamada) in which balls repeatedly hit groins; a silly “human puppet” episode involving the late Bernie Mac (to whom the pic is dedicated, alongside Travolta’s late son, Jett); and a zoo climax that gets Dan airborne, Charlie attacked by penguins and an office associate (Seth Green) adopted by a gorilla.

It’s unclear whether the often frantic editing by Tom Lewis and Ryan Folsey prevents these scenes from building any rhythm or represents an attempt at salvage. In any case, there’s a haphazardness to the goings-on here: Holes in logic and pacing are routinely plugged by incontinence jokes, pop-soundtrack cues and a whole lot of canine reaction shots from Charlie’s actual old dog. Latter gets more screentime than any number of often bewilderingly underused name talents including Ann-Margret (one scene), Amy Sedaris (a couple of lines), and the unbilled Dax Shepard and Luis Guzman.

While supporting players are often pushed to hit very broad notes, the stars manage whenever possible to seem in relaxed form. Though neither is exactly moved to contribute memorable work here, their different comedic styles are complementary. They seem to be having fun — and for all the film’s routine and/or sloppy aspects, “Old Dogs” will likely convince audiences out for a disposable good time that they’re having fun, too.

Look is the usual bright-and-bland palette of current studio comedies. John Debney’s original score is most noticeable when underlining the expected occasional maudlin moments.

Old Dogs

Production

A Walt Disney Pictures release of a Tapestry Films production. Produced by Andrew Panay, Robert L. Levy, Peter Abrams. Executive producer, Garrett Grant. Directed by Walt Becker. Screenplay, David Diamond, David Weissman.

Crew

Camera (color), Jeffrey L. Kimball; editors, Tom Lewis, Ryan Folsey; music, John Debney; music supervisor, Dave Jordan; production designer, David Gropman; art director, Peter Rogness; set decorator, Ellen Christiansen; costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), James J. Sabat; supervising sound editor, Michael Hilkene; re-recording mixers, Orest Sushko, Dan Leahy, Scott Millan; stunt coordinators, Bobby Brown, Thomas Robinson Harper, Johnny Martin; associate producers, Anson Downes, Linda Favila; assistant director, Vincent Lascoumes; casting, Anne McCarthy, Jay Scully, Kathleen Chopin. Reviewed at Sony Metreon, San Francisco, November 21, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Charlie - John Travolta Dan - Robin Williams Vicki - Kelly Preston Zach - Conner Rayburn Emily - Ella Bleu Travolta Amanda - Lori Loughlin Craig - Seth Green Jimmy Lunchbox - Bernie Mac Barry - Matt Dillon Martha - Ann-Margret Jenna - Rita Wilson
With: Amy Sedaris, Residente, Saburo Shimono, Kevin W. Yamada, Dax Shepard, Luis Guzman, Justin Long.

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