Self-destruction can also be a kind of salvation. Sure, the drugs and alcohol and reckless behavior may lead to a quicker death, but for some people, a life without them is a living death, a slow-motion suicide. For most of us, there are certain additional things we need — not to survive, but to want to survive. That could be a relationship, a fandom, a career, or an art. For some people, that’s alcohol, and that’s what it takes to make it through the day. Don’t talk to them about their health; if they liked life so much, they wouldn’t be drunk all the time. They don’t care about their health.
For Jimmy Quinn, it’s alcohol and, perhaps to a lesser extent, stand-up comedy. In The Road Dog, Jimmy is a leftover of the old brigade, doomed to the Sisyphean stand-up circuit, traveling the country from dive to dive to tell jokes that are usually too clever for his audience’s comprehension. He never made it big, refusing to compromise and wear the proverbial suit for late-night television. His old acquaintances got sitcom deals and television specials, but Jimmy is too bitter and self-sabotaging for that. Or maybe he’s just too real for entertainment.
The Road Dog patiently follows Jimmy, played to perfection by the comedian Doug Stanhope, as he meets the world with indifference and distaste. His son, David (Des Mulrooney), wakes him up one morning; they’ve never met before, and the young man wants to be a stand-up comedian. Jimmy runs to the toilet to vomit. David stands outside the motel in the cold. He’s the dispositional antithesis of Jimmy, an optimistic, eager, and clean-cut stand-up with a very different act. But he has a car and his mom’s credit card, so that means breakfast and a ride to the next dive.
Doug Stanhope Plays with His Persona
Greg Glienna’s low-budget indie stays authentic to the stand-up comedy experience, at least at the most quotidian level beneath the glitz and glamor of made men. The locations are perfectly representative of the cheesy nightclubs, bad bars, strip malls, and bland landscapes that comprise many a comedian’s nights. Most of the time, it’s too urban to be suburban, but too suburban to be urban. Blanketed in snow and decorated with dead things, The Road Dog has the perfect setting for Jimmy’s experience.
Jimmy and David mostly drive, talk, eat, and sleep, with Jimmy performing nearly nightly before obliterating himself with booze at the bar. Maybe he’s paid $500 one night; he’ll drink $150 of it. But of course, what else is he going to spend it on (aside from smokes, of course)? Jimmy is adrift in the world. As the title implies, he seems to be tethered to the road.
Stanhope has lived this life, and it shows. At times, The Road Dog feels like a documentary. The comedian described acting to MovieWeb this way:
All I have to do is remember what I’m supposed to say and when I’m supposed to say it, and keep an ear out when I’m outside smoking. I gotta keep an ear out for when they’re ready for me, so I’m not late. That was pretty much it.
There’s a kind of unpretentious beauty to that, and it’s probably why some of the most hypnotic performances in film history come from non-actors or first-timers. The script wasn’t written for him, and yet Stanhope was perfectly in sync with it. If you’re unfamiliar with his work (start with Beer Hall Putsch), Jimmy will be an unforgettable character. If you do enjoy Stanhope’s stand-up, then The Road Dog will be a familiar but delightful treat that feels like a fictional extension of his work.
A Flat Film and a Great Character
The actual journey between father and son falters in favor of Stanhope’s bravura performance. Like its main character, the film is reluctant to take the time creating an authentic emotional bond, and it comes across as incongruously sentimental when it attempts to be poignant. An attempted sobriety and recovery sequence is disastrously rushed and feels flat compared to everything else in the film.
But maybe that’s the point. The Road Dog has a flattening effect, from its production design and locations to its bland editing and awkward reaction shots. The overall result is almost punk in its amateurishness and certainly feels raw and authentic. This isn’t pretty or dynamic cinema. That’s alright. It isn’t a pretty story.
Aside from the nature of that aforementioned recovery scene, The Road Dog uses that rawness to its advantage in depicting the real banality and dirtiness of stand-up, and the repetitive, stubborn oblivion of alcoholism. From the nights to the mornings, the blackouts to the pink clouds, the film has a pretty clear grasp on the nature of a boozehound. It’s no Barfly, but it’s also no Lenny. There aren’t lofty goals here, neither to be a great drinking film nor a great stand-up film (or if there were, The Road Dog falls short).
Instead, it’s a great character study, brought to life by a good script (from Glienna and co-write Tony Boswell) and one of the best performances of the year thanks to Stanhope. The flat but mostly melancholic tone can become a bit mesmerizing if you put aside your complaints with the technical filmmaking problems, though. So pour a drink and bask in it.
From Freestyle Digital Media, The Road Dog is available Oct. 6 on demand on cable, satellite, and all digital platforms. You can watch the trailer below: