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Old Dogs should be put down

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Having sat through the witless preview more times than I care to remember, I was perfectly willing to let Old Dogs go gentle into that good night, one of the expected casualties during a period in which screenings of year-end award contenders come flying fast and furious. But then I read that in one scene, John Travolta plays the Joker, and I got excited at the sheer prospect of witnessing such a dazzling display of cinematic wretchedness. Truly, this would be a scene to surpass any given moment from such past Travolta bombs as Battlefield Earth and Look Who's Talking Too!

But no. Contrary to expectations, there's no fantasy sequence in which Travolta plays the Joker; instead, his character has merely taken some medicine that causes his face to sport a Joker-esque grimace. Thus, what could have been a so-bad-it's-glorious moment instead falls into the so-bad-it's-only-bad camp. Then again, that pretty much describes the entire project, which casts Travolta and Robin Williams as Charlie and Dan, business partners who suddenly find themselves looking after Dan's newly discovered kids (twins conceived during one drunken night seven years ago) for a couple of weeks. Masters of their trade (sports marketing), the pair prove to be completely incompetent in the presence of the children (Conner Rayburn and Ella Bleu Travolta, neither exactly a find), leading to a series of excruciating sequences in which the adults are repeatedly ridiculed, humiliated and made to suffer great physical pain.

The movie is never remotely funny, but it excels at being creepy. In addition to Travolta's aforementioned gross-out grin, Rita Wilson is on hand to deliver a skin-crawling performance as a hyperactive hand model. The sight of a gorilla nuzzling annoying Seth Green is equally nauseating -- more so since most audience members will be feverishly praying that the creature tears him limb from limb instead. There are countless moments of creative desperation -- reaction shots from a dog, golf balls to the groin, etc. -- although the nadir has to be the scene in which Sam is deemed so clueless a parent that a puppeteer (the late Bernie Mac, and if this doesn't rank among the most depressing swan songs ever) places him in an electronic outfit and, with the help of Charlie, guides him through every physical motion as this dud of a dad attempts to play King to his daughter's Princess at a royal tea party. At this point, I desperately wanted Alice's Red Queen to burst onto the screen and order beheadings en masse.

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