Whether The Dog Lover is actually a movie is debatable.
You can guess that this film is more propaganda than cinema from its movie poster alone, which makes sure to bold “WRONG SIDE OF RIGHT” and “LEARN THE TRUTH” while pairing its protagonist with some clearly Photoshopped dogs. Is any of this poster actually real? Is its clear artificiality meant to mirror the movie’s own disingenuousness? That’s probably giving The Dog Lover too much credit. Its ham-fistedness is less complicated than all that.
These are all the things The Dog Lover criticizes, undermines, or mocks: nonprofits, higher education, lobbyists, the media, vegetarians, atheists, pretty much all women, the police, prosecutors, and journalists. You know, a real short list!
In its adaptation of the story of Dan Christensen of South Dakota, whose dog-breeding operation was raided by the Humane Society of the United States in September 2009, The Dog Lover makes sure to side, in every way, with its male protagonist. Practically everyone else is thrown under the bus, from animal-rights nonprofits to the police, and the film plays the blame game with relish. Its unevenness is almost distasteful.
The Dog Lover focuses on young activist Sara Gold (Allison Paige). After graduating from college with a marketing degree, Sara takes a job with the United Animal Protection Agency, where she lands an assignment (“Who goes undercover for a nonprofit?” her unsupportive mother sneers) pretending to be an intern for Daniel Holloway, who is being investigated by the UAPA.
Sarah’s blond, rich, narcissistic boss—obviously standing in for successful women everywhere, with her photographs of herself on her desk and her bitchy pushiness—tells Sarah that the group wants to bring Daniel down because he’s running an unsafe puppy mill. But he’s also a leading voice in the opposition to Prop 12, a piece of legislation that the UAPA is backing that would shut down dog-breeding operations. Sarah’s job is to pose as an intern for Daniel, ingratiating herself with his family and providing the UAPA with undeniable evidence that the Holloways are putting their animals in danger.
When Sarah arrives at the Holloways, though, there are early stumbles. Her cleavage-baring outfit (oh no, women’s breasts!) is shamed by Daniel’s son Will (Jayson Blair), who makes sure Sarah covers up before meeting his “conservative” father. Daniel immediately judges Sarah, asking her whether she knows “there’s more to animals than carrying them around in expensive handbags.” His young daughter mocks Sarah’s vegetarian diet, and the family is shocked when Sarah doesn’t want to pray before dinner. (In fact, Daniel replies “Good” when she assures him she’s not an atheist.)
But eventually, Sarah learns to like these people, for some reason that is surely related to how Will looks at her when she wears unbelievable short-shorts around the farm, doing gruntwork. With that relationship developing, Sarah is torn when the UAPA and the police use some of her secret footage to raid the Holloways, manipulating video to frame Daniel for wrongdoing.
With that plot twist, the film’s insane melodrama ratchets to maximum levels, leading to Lea Thompson’s character screaming “Who do you work for?” at Sarah; Daniel almost having a heart attack when he sees what kind of budget dog food the police are feeding his animals; and Sarah being mansplained by Will about how everything she believes about animal rights is wrong. It would all be amusing, if it weren’t so ridiculously one-sided.
Amid all this, the main problem is Sarah, whose character is supposed to be our audience stand-in but who mostly comes off like a total idiot you won’t care about one bit. She has particularly trite, poorly written dialogue like “It’s something that I believe in. Dog-breeding is wrong,” and she does dumb things like wander onto the private property of men with guns who feel just fine threatening her life, and then she makes out with Will while leaning against a pickup truck as a herd of horses gallops around them, because there is no more masturbatory right-wing America image than that. Literally none.
By the end of the film, when she’s traded her lip gloss and denim cutoffs for a virginal white lace dress and a bare face so she can truly be worthy of Will Holloway and his redeemed family, you will have literally no patience for Sarah, or for any of the movie that tries to make you care one iota about her ethical “struggle.” The Dog Lover may be “based on a true story,” but everything about it feels so artificial and agenda-driven that it’s impossible to enjoy unless you’re already firmly on its side.
Ratings: 0.5 out of 5 Guttenbergs