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'Dolittle': Physician, Heal Thy Self
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
03:51PM / Thursday, January 23, 2020
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It was early in director Stephan Gaghan's "Dolittle," the umpteenth permutation derived of Hugh Lofting's 1920 novel, "The Story of Doctor Dolittle," when I began to bemoan my choice of occupation. Little on the screen could dissuade me from the self-pity. So, I resorted to fantasizing. What would have been so terrible about being a podiatrist?
"Madge, anyone left out there?"
"Yes, Dr. Goldberger, Mrs. Berkowitz, your 5:30, is your last."
"Send her in. How are you, Mrs. Berkowitz? Corns still bothering you?"
"Oy, don't ask, Dr. Goldberger. And I think it's worse from the walking around at the mall with my grandchildren this afternoon. I took them to see 'Dolittle,' which wasn't funny like with Eddie Murphy. My feet seem to hurt worse since seeing the movie. Is that possible, doctor?"
"I don't know, but so much for this fantasy, Mrs. Berkowitz. Go home and pop in a DVD of 'The Sunshine Boys' (1975). Watch once. Repeat if necessary. You'll feel much better."
Back to the reality of trying to discern what films should and should not be recommended for viewing by our future engineers, lawyers, opera singers and podiatrists, I listened in vain for snippets of approval if not out and out laughter. Which made me wonder, considering Robert Downey Jr.'s strangely somber portrayal of the title character, if it was the director's aim to introduce Tyler and Taylor to their first serious film. And if so, why not just show'em "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942)? Nothing more than PG stuff there. I mean, if you're out to furrow a kid's brow with the worries of adults, do it in style.
Furthermore, Downey's unsuccessful attempt to form a likable if not entirely enchanting persona is as disconcerting as it is curiously unamusing. Appropriating some sort of Scottish brogue, made even less audible by a muttering, offhanded delivery a la Popeye, it seemed as if this otherwise naturally glib actor was attempting to trademark his Dolittle with an obscure detachment analogous to Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow.
Adding to the unfathomability, there doesn't seem to be much magic in the notion that Dr. John Dolittle can converse with all manner of animal. It's simply a given, with the plot's main emphasis centering on the doctor's staunch resolve to disassociate himself from humankind. The metaphor is a tad sad, and one hopes that not too many of the ragamuffin set in attendance have occasion to relate. Whereas this adult, who longingly looked at the exit signs the way Paul Henreid's Victor Laszlo might have viewed the plane to Portugal in "Casablanca" (1942), wondered if it was the movie or imagining a full day of fixing patients' feet that begged me to doze.
So maybe I missed a little here and there as I struggled to get into the convoluted storyline, which essentially treats its target audience to a tale of long-lost love. But that only made me think of a brilliant, favorite prof I had in grad school (B.A., William and Mary; M.A., Princeton) who, according to a coed I was dating, informed with F. Scott Fitzgerald fatalism that "it was a woman" who deterred him from getting his PhD. But I was 22. I'm not sure at what age a child should be persuaded that it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.
Nonetheless, it is the story's raison d'etre that Dr. Dolittle should put on his big boy pants, abandon his reclusive posture and save a very sick young Queen Victoria from dying. Add Antonio Banderas' pirate King Rassouli as the interceding father of the dear departed Lilly to supply some superfluous filler, and there you have the outline of the snail's pace soppiness.
OK, so maybe it's just my pie-in-the-sky fantasy. But trudging through the doctor's journey to wished for epiphany, it occurred that if you made a film that just so happened to include animals who could talk, you'd insure their chatter was at least interesting if not funny. Yet these critters' utterings are for the most part no more engaging than the verbiage spewed by the bulk of endlessly annoying telemarketers trying to sell me, well, I don't know what they're trying to sell me.
All these misfires of the motion picture kind considered, one can't help but become more consumed with the curiously apparent ineptitude of "Dolittle" than with the tale it's attempting to relate. What were they thinking? But more troubling to this would-be podiatrist is how the failed film might impact the first-time filmgoer. Assuming full Auntie Mame mode, I wanted to assure each and every one of them that a whole wide world of great movies awaited their discovery, and that they need only pick the right film critic to point them out.
"Dolittle," rated PG, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Stephen Gaghan and stars Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas and Carmel Laniado. Running time: 101 minutes
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