John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan may have received major award nominations this season for their fine work in “Stan & Ollie,” but there’s arguably a superior Laurel & Hardy tribute act to be found in the droll Danish comedy “St. Bernard Syndicate.” As a pair of bumbling losers who turn an already dubious business proposal — breeding and hawking St. Bernard puppies for the Chinese market — into a shambolically fine mess, actors Frederik Cilius and Rasmus Bruun have a passive-aggressive, oil-and-water chemistry that somehow recalls the bantering vintage duo as if stranded in a Dogme 95 comedy of embarrassment. A wily left turn into narrative filmmaking for celebrated docmaker Mads Brügger (“The Red Chapel”), “St. Bernard Syndicate” deftly extends the dry satirical streak of his non-fiction work into a more heightened vein of farce; rarefied cult status awaits.
Receiving a limited run in U.S. theaters around the same time as Brügger’s latest documentary “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” premieres at Sundance, “St. Bernard Syndicate” was a comparatively low-key presence on last year’s festival circuit — though it did earn honors at Tribeca for Bruun and screenwriter Lærke Sanderhoff. Perhaps the film’s quiet profile comes down to its essential slenderness: Witty and larkish in the moment, it isn’t about an awful lot more than it appears to be on the surface. That hardly matters when the execution is such deadpan perfection, taking equal tonal cues from Ricky Gervais, Aki Kaurismäki and early Thomas Vinterberg, and regarding its own escalating absurdity with both a wink and a dour grimace.
This is a world, after all, in which St. Bernard dogs are earnestly described as “the pandas of the West” and no one so much as cracks a smile in response. This is the pitch that Frederik (Cilius), a paunchy blowhard with not much to show for thirtysomething years on the planet, repeats to sell people on what we surmise is the latest of various hare-brained get-rich-quick schemes: to make the huge, slobbering mutts a must-have family accessory in China, kidnapping his father’s own treasured pet Dollar to use as his sales model.
At a school reunion, Frederik finds an unlikely partner and financial backer in Rasmus (Bruun), a wan, eager-to-please underachiever with, as it turns out, very little to lose. For what Frederik doesn’t know is that Rasmus has been newly diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and is determined to live out one last adventure before his body gives out on him.
So it is that the unpromising, awkwardly matched pair — never friends at school, and only intermittently civil as adults — head to Chongqing, dog in tow, to make their fortune. There, things go about as well as you’d expect them to, only worse; hampered from the get-go by bad luck, bad judgment and a few truly cringe-worthy unforced errors. Brügger retains his documentarian’s eye throughout, as he and cinematographer Jonas Berlin shoot even the most antic setpieces with a cool, impassive gaze that only stresses their hilarity: Most memorable in this regard is a calamitous sales launch that successful mixes broad slapstick (as one character accidentally fires a confetti cannon into their crotch) with subtler reactive comedy, drenched in mortified sweat. Thankfully, though the film maintains this ironic vérité stance throughout, Brügger never fully sinks into a tired mockumentary format.
Both actors deserve much of the credit for the film’s scrappy appeal. Cilius and Bruun squabble with tetchy verbal energy and exploit their contrasting physiques and demeanors — Frederik imposing and short-fused, Rasmus reedy and wheedling — for maximum comic value, while empathetically maintaining a sense of real, doleful human tragedy beneath their shenanigans. And of course, any pooch-themed film is only as good as the dog at its center: As Dollar, in a film that deserves to eclipse “Beethoven” as the St. Bernard’s breed’s finest screen hour, a magnificent specimen named Odessa is lovable enough to make Frederik’s dead-end idea seem just about worth buying into.