The curious appeal of the documentary The Dog, of course, its sizzle, is in the outlandish act that made John Wojtowicz famous, and the subject of an Oscar-winning film—the 1972 robbing of a Brooklyn bank in order to finance his lover’s sex re-assignment surgery. But all around the edges, in abundant portion, there’s depression and dissociation and the quiet tragedy of mental illness kind of politely indulged rather than ever successfully treated. The result is a good film that at times flirts with singularity, but also one that is a melancholic and at times frustrating work—entertaining but wearying—for the taxing degree to which it turns itself over to its self-involved, self-satisfied subject.
On screen, most people know Wojtowicz through the character of Sonny Wortzik, and the panicked, electric performance of Al Pacino in director Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. In real life, Wojtowicz is, if possible, even more of a live wire. He sometimes opts for weird similes (“I’m like the gay Babe Ruth!”), but Wojtowicz is from the beginning open about his sexual compulsion, and he generally comes across like a soft-serve machine of candor, stuck on pump. “I’ve had four wives and 23 girlfriends, because I’m a pervert,” says Wojtowicz. “And they all know each other because I’m like Prudential—I’m the rock, and I give a piece of myself to everybody.”
The film, then, happily charts its subject’s unusual life, from an early gay experience in the military through his first marriage to Carmen Bifulco, his turbulent relationship with Ernest Aron (the man he would take as his second “wife”) and of course the armed and botched attempt, with two accomplices, to rob a Chase Manhattan bank. The pre-robbery details, which Wojtowicz lays out in characteristically blunt terms, are in lockstep oddity with the case as a whole: a daisy chain of sexual coercion and self-loathing, and a viewing of The Godfather to get pumped up.
As a character sketch and a kind of nonfiction wingding, The Dog is (pun embraced, if not intended) arresting. Ample blind spots, however, prevent the movie from rising to the level of something truly special. After dancing around it for almost two-thirds of its running time, the film somewhat addresses the cryptic absence of Wojtowicz’s father (who remained married to Wojtowicz’s mother but is never mentioned by him, and is glimpsed in only a single photo), by way of a psychiatrist who simply says something about him being unusually withdrawn. (No kidding.) But co-directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren never press Wojtowicz about his relationship with either him or his two children with Carmen, which would seem to say a lot, both forthrightly and indirectly, about a man so self-professedly obsessed with love, in all its incarnations.
For all his gregariousness, Wojtowicz seems to be an exhausting person to have had in one’s life. In its lively portraiture of this narcissistic mama’s boy (Wojtowicz’s doting yet salty mother Terry is the documentary’s breakout character), The Dog flirts with deeper truths about lives surrendered to the pursuit of fame and celebrity. But it never quite punches through, or wrests the narrative bullhorn away from its mad hatter emcee. It’s a rich dessert served in a slightly too-hearty portion size.
Directors: Allison Berg, Frank Keraudren
Distributor: Drafthouse Films
Release Date: Aug. 15, 2014
Entertainment journalist Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily and Paste among many other outlets, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.