The last thing you would call it is cuddly.
The last thing you would call The Saint Bernard Syndicate is cuddly. In this satire from director Mads Brügger, the star breed, previously featured in such family-friendly diversions as Beethoven, is not so much a companion as a commodity. With the tagline, “Two Men, One Dog, 1,000 Bad Ideas,” one might expect a lighthearted comedy, and by that standard the movie fails miserably. But it’s a fascinating political satire that may well be a scathing indictment of the very idea of domesticating animals.
Thirty-something Frederik (Frederik Cilius) is networking at a class reunion and trying without success to convince rich alumni to invest in his plan to sell Saint Bernards to middle-class Chinese. He finds his mark in Rasmus (David Hockney lookalike Rasmus Bruun) who’s been stuck in a job selling mattresses (in other words, dreams!) and could use an economic push. After Rasmus borrows his father’s faithful Saint Bernard called Dollar (real name: Odessa) the hopeful businessmen head to the bustling metropolis of Chongqing looking for venture capitalists.
The concept suggests a reversal of Ron Howard’s forgotten 1986 comedy Gung Ho, in which a Japanese car company buys an American plant and (a dated) cross-cultural hilarity ensues. This being the Danish, and the 2010s, the comedy is more of the uncomfortable variety of Mikkel Nørgaard’s 2010 Klown. With a despondent Frederik frequently passing out drunk, and Rasmus doing the best he can to bed employee/translator Beyond (Boyang Li), the movie seems headed for a remake from the producers of The Hangover, starring Seth Rogen and Bradley Cooper.
But there’s a subtle undercurrent that subverts shock comedy expectations, and there’s a reason for that. Brügger, whose new documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld was one of the most critically lauded titles at this year’s Sundance festival, was responsible for the series “Red Chapel,” which tried to stage sketch comedy under the eyes of North Korean censors. The director is a known provocateur, and uses the tropes of bromance and naughty travelogues to sink his teeth into the very notion of marketing live creatures.
Yet the movie, which was “semi-scripted,” plays a little better on paper than on film. The lead characters are so hapless and unlikeable that it makes it harder to stick the satire. If “Mad Men” was, for some viewers, a chance to look at the advertising world through terrible but attractive people, The Saint Bernard Syndicate puts us inside the marketing world by following a pair of boorish schlubs.
Which may well be the point. The movie doesn’t really take off until a giddy dream-like commercial in which the loyal Dollar (see what he did there?) is anthropomorphized into a Chinese waif waiting for his master to come home. In fact, that ad was written and produced by a Chinese team. The Saint Bernard Syndicate may have been better as a kind of Blair Witch Syndrome documentary to see how Chinese businessmen interpret the mischievous Dane’s setup.