The poster for “Dog Days” amputates its human characters just above the waist, focusing our attention instead on the collection of adorable canines assembled at their feet: a pug in a pizza box, a giant Labradoodle with a shoe in its mouth, a Chihuahua wearing a pink vest and helmet, and so on. “Forget the people. See this movie for its four-legged characters,” the campaign might as well be saying, and yet, the dogs in “Dog Days” serve as little more than man’s best plot devices, conveniently heart-swelling critters designed to spark interactions between their otherwise bland owners and friends in this ingratiating ensemble comedy.
Then again, what else would you expect from a movie called “Dog Days” that falls squarely in the dump month of August, amid those summer doldrums when temperatures rise and the quality of megaplex offerings dips? It’s as if the folks who packaged this low-concept crowd-pleaser targeted this time of year knowing that people expect the movies to be bad, setting out to leave them pleasantly surprised rather than reaching for greatness and falling short, as so many others do.
Set in Los Angeles, this overstuffed, sitcom-style group effort resembles those holiday-themed laffers Garry Marshall churned out over the final decade of his career, dogs like “Mother’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve” in which a bunch of beautiful but otherwise unremarkable characters try to sort out their relationship problems over the span of a long two hours. Like Marshall, actor-turned-helmer Ken Marino (“How to Be a Latin Lover”) hails from the world of television, and his single-camera directorial style favors quippy interactions on overlit soundstages, where it feels as if he’s serving up the funniest of half a dozen possible jokes the cast ad-libbed in each situation (the end credits are full of the runners-up that didn’t make the cut, including several “Shih Tzu” puns parents will be none too pleased to hear their kids repeating around the house).
United by the fact that they all see the same vet, the main characters include a heartbroken morning-show host named Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev, who appears to be channeling every cute look actress Emily Mortimer ever gave on camera); barista Tara (“High School Musical” star Vanessa Hudgens), who’s so smitten with Dr. Mike (Michael Cassidy) that she ignores over-eager coffee-shop regular Garrett (Jon Bass); and irresponsible garage-band frontman Dax (Adam Pally), whose very pregnant sister (Jessica St. Clair) forces him to dog-sit while she goes into labor. The characters’ animal companions factor in, although their primary role is to supply an obligatory whimper or sad-eyed cutaway whenever a gentle “aww” is needed from the audience.
Elissa Matsueda and Erica Oyama’s script also provides a few kids for younger viewers to latch on to, including 16-year-old pizza delivery boy Tyler (Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things”), who helps a widowed English professor (Ron Cephas Jones of “This Is Us”) look for his lost pug, and Amelia (newcomer Elizabeth Phoenix Caro), the recently adopted daughter of Rob Corddry and Eva Longoria’s characters, who happens to find the stray dog. Nearly all the remaining roles go to comedians (such as Tig Notaro and Lauren Lapkus), which helps to keep viewers laughing, even as nothing particularly original is happening in the main storylines (someone to watch: Phoebe Neidhardt as a meteorologist with a tendency to over-share on air).
At one point, Tara grouses that she’s not doing anything meaningful with her life, and Garrett points out that she brightens people’s mornings. “Dog Days” may not be grand, change-the-world filmmaking, but it is funny and kinda sweet in spots. There are certainly worse ways to enjoy the air conditioning than watching a handful of chipper comedians throw a fundraiser to save an animal shelter — an event that conveniently ties together half a dozen plot strands engaging with everything from dating and adoption to childbirth and coping with the death of a spouse. Alas, the behaviors on display have virtually nothing to do with real life, limiting the experience to little more than empty escapism for the dog lover in all of us.