Ned Chipley doesn’t do things half-way. He’s an eager beaver of the first order.
“He just wants to help,” his frustrated mother explains.
He wants to help entirely too much. Like the time, in the cougar suit as his high school mascot, he dashed on the field and tackled an opponent running otherwise unmolested into the end zone.
His enthusiasm is why he got kicked out of his local volunteer fire department. His determination is why he shows up at the local Marine Corps recruiting office every year on his birthday.
“Sir, I’m tired of these terrorists SIR. And I’m ready to be a member, uh, of the most ELITE fighting force in the world. SIR!”
His birthday? The eleventh of September. And all Ned (Michael Angarano) wants for his birthday, all he DREAMS about (jungles, helicopters, heroism) is joining up. He works out every day. There’s a daily Polaroid to chart his physique-building, photos taken by his mom (Allison Janney), who remembers the dreams she once had and abandoned, and writes letters charting his “training progress” to the recruiting officer.
The corporal/receptionist (actress/director Jennifer Morrison) is used to him. The new sergeant (Xzbit) in charge, isn’t.
“Any medical condition we should know about?”
The kid delivers his spiel via index cards. He has a copy of Sir, we have to go after Bin Laden, sir. I will go to the caves, sir. I will leave NO man behind.”
“Son, get up and put your shirt back on!”
“Sun Dogs” is an underachieving comical character study that wears out its welcome after too short a while, and a minor-key mystery with a “Gung Ho!” mein. Because Ned, conditioned by years of watching nightly war movies with his unemployed stepdad (Ed O’Neill), is READY. Or thinks he is, in his limited capacity.
His stepdad isn’t taking the blame for this, either.
“No one in their right MIND would watch “The Deer Hunter” and want to enlist!”
Angarano makes the kid twitchy, squirrely even, “special needs” stereotypical. And something made him that way, something long before watching the Twin Towers fall, on his birthday, three years before.
Rapper/actor Xzibit gives an increasing softness to his recruiting officer. He’s the one that convinces Ned to become a “Sun Dog,” the fellow off to the side, supporting others, “taking care of things on the Home Front…Welcome to the fight!”
The kid has his mission, and has barely had his “Sun Dogs” business cards (?!) printed up when his mission, his misadventure in “helping someone,” begins. Tally (Melissa Benoist) is a semi-homeless casino hustler who causes trouble at Ned’s night job. That’s not the way Ned sees it.
And Tally? She’s cute and “Semper fi,” ready to help him go through his deck of “Most Wanted Terrorist” playing cards. Sure, she quit school. There’s a native intelligence about her that belies her actions. But about that scar on his forehead…
“D’you get that in the war?”
They set out to follow people who look like those Iraqis and al Qaeda members on the playing cards. Yeah, we know they’re Sikhs. Not Ned and Tally. “Sketchy,” Ned says in his frequent typewritten reports back to the Master Sergeant. He takes on Robert DeNiro’s beard and beret in “Deer Hunter” as he burrows deeper into his delusions.
The loopy, deluded desperation of Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye” is referenced as Tally flirts and reaches out to the “crazy serious” “Sun Dog.” Ned? He’s playing those cards, trying to “Save” well, somebody, and not giving away much about what makes him tick.
Morrison, working from a Raoul McFarland/Anthony Tambakis script, strains to make a sensitive story about two desperate people anxious to lose themselves in delusions. She tries to find the lightness in a tale of ignorant racial profiling.
“Sun Dogs” devolves into something sadder and far less mysterious than it wants to be, not as sweet as it seems and not the movie you kind of want it to be. There’s that omnipresent “follow your bliss” message that movies with no better idea trot out.
Tally could be a character out of “Good Girl,” where we first got a taste of people who lose themselves in a great book (“The Catcher in the Rye”) but are no wiser for it. Her inability to see through Ned is disappointing. Her using him would have been a more dramatic and realistic approach.
And those who indulge Ned are creating a guy who really would like a weapon and probably has a pizza joint he’d be willing to storm, if his delusions told him to.
At some point, it’s just not cute any more.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, adult situations, profanity.
Cast: Michael Angarano, Melissa Benoist, Allison Janney, Xzibit, Ed O’Neill, Jennifer Morrison
Running time: 1:33