Originally slated as a Picturehouse theatrical release, “A Dog Year” has instead been unleashed on HBO during the you-know-what days of summer. Based on Jon Katz’s fact-based book about his own struggles and how he worked through them with the help of an adopted dog, the pic is every bit as interesting as the prospect of watching a blocked, sullen novelist suggests. Mostly, it’s a two-character piece — Jeff Bridges as Jon Katz, and a border collie named Ryder as his mutt — and the four-footed one delivers the more compelling performance.
The details remain a little sketchy regarding why Jon — essentially separated from his wife, who is heard only over the phone — agrees to adopt an abused dog in addition to his two placid Labradors. But Devon is an instant handful, from the moment he bolts through the airport to his penchant for pulling away from Jon and chasing after moving vehicles.
Making his directorial debut, writer George LaVoo (“Real Women Have Curves”) might have thought this would all resonate emotionally, in the same way “Marley and Me” tapped into the powerful bond people share with pets. Yet other than the principal dog — who, with kudos here to head trainer Mathilde Halberg, actually manages to look wary and suspicious — the movie is every bit as lifeless and stunted as Jon is, with even Joseph Vitarelli’s score fumbling to find the proper tone.
“Six Feet Under’s” Lauren Ambrose pops in briefly as Jon’s daughter, but the story’s catalyst — Lois Smith, as a gruff, no-nonsense trainer — doesn’t arrive till the last half-hour or so, dispensing life lessons to both man and beast.
Other than looking disheveled, Bridges simply can’t seem to unearth much from Jon’s character, which underscores the difficulty in translating an internal monologue into a cinematic experience.
A bit like the protagonist, HBO is merely playing the good soldier here by giving a home to a sibling’s orphaned movie. It’s just that while “A Dog Year” runs only 80 minutes, watching it feels about seven times that long.