Matthew Modine has gone to the dogs. And no, I'm not talking about the fact that his last movie, "Bye Bye, Love," was a box-office bowser, skedaddling out of the theaters faster than a mutt with a Chevy to chase.
I mean he's really a dog in "Fluke." Four paws, shaggy coat, wet nose, mouth full of sharp teeth and dog breath.
Matt's life as a dog begins when his character's speeding car goes airborne and fetches up, grille-first, against a nice sturdy tree. Blackout. When he comes to, he's no longer a stressed-out yuppie but a cute little puppy named Fluke.
What happens next shouldn't happen to a, well, you know. He's grabbed by the dogcatcher and penned up on doggy death row at the pound. He stages a canine version of the Great Escape and begins a crash course in life on the streets. He is befriended first by a kindly bag lady and later by a savvy pooch with the voice of Samuel L. Jackson (curiously uncredited).
All the while he's haunted by memories of his former existence. Talking to himself in a melancholy Modine voice that only he, his fellow dogs and the audience can hear, he muses on the idyllic happiness he once shared with his wife and young son (Nancy Travis and Max Pomeranc).
Eventually, he's reunited with his loved ones. But it's a bittersweet reunion, to say the least. To go from head of the family to family pet is quite a comedown. When he discovers that his old business partner (Eric Stoltz) is putting the moves on his grieving wife, well . . .
Bad dog! Mad dog! Where's the animal-control crew when you need it?
Based on James Herbert's novel of the same name (director Carlo Carlei co-wrote the screenplay with James Carrington), "Fluke" intends to tug the heartstrings. But with its syrupy score and scenes full of sad dog eyes gazing imploringly at the camera, it badly overplays its hand.
Carlei tries to balance realism and comedy and sentimentality but never gets the proportions quite right. Either the picture is too graphically realistic (a scene in which Fluke undergoes a brutal lab experiment will make viewers of all ages squirm) or it's just too sickly sweet (all those sad dog glances).
Also, Modine's voice lacks warmth, and that's a critical failing. His character has lost almost all he had: his family, his life, his species. But not his humanity. In the course of the picture, we learn that he was well on his way to losing his humanity while he was still a human being.
Workaholism was destroying his family, making him ever more emotionally distant from his loved ones. Coming back as an animal has the paradoxical effect of reconnecting him with his humanity by giving him an unexpected perspective on what he's lost. It's the old "you don't miss your water till your well runs dry" scenario.
But Modine is incapable of making us feel the depth of the character's loss. His voice is curiously passionless and pinched-sounding even in the movie's most poignant moments. There is no real sorrow in his performance, just a kind of low-grade anxiety.
The Italian-born Carlei, who came to Hollywood's attention with his visually stunning first film, the Italian-language "Flight of the Innocent," brings a similar visual flair to "Fluke." But too often his lush style calls attention to itself and distracts from the story he's trying to tell.
"Fluke" tries hard to snuggle its way into the audience's heart but lacks the warmth and spirit to pull off the feat.
Directed by Carlo Carlei
Starring Matthew Modine, Nancy Travis, Eric Stoltz
Released by MGM Pictures
Rated PG (some violence)