When during the film’s opening few seconds, Phoenix car salesman, Mark Chamberlain (Patrick J. Adams) tells a customer, “Look, I know how people feel about car salesmen,” then adds, “Most of the time I understand,” the first thing that runs through your mind is, wait; most of the time?
Let’s be honest, even though at one time or another many of us have either worked in sales, or have had to deal directly with a sales department, if there’s one segment to the backbone of practically all industries that really irks a buying customer, it’s the car salesman. We know it; they know it; and they know you know it when you come in to buy. And the more you learn, the less you like.
In Car Dogs, the new drama from director Adam Collins – it’s billed as a comedy/drama, but it’s not; it’s a drama – all the tricks of the trade are revealed. Writer, ASU graduate and Scottsdale native, Mark King, himself a one-time car salesman, has pulled the curtain back revealing procedure, tricks and attitudes. “What is the number one rule of the car business, Scott?” asks his dealership boss when the salesman makes an error. Scott (Dash Mihok) knows the answer. “Buyers are liars,” he replies. Wow. So that’s how they think about us.
Car Dogs begins with chaos and rushes to the point where the clock has to stop. The Phoenix based Chamberlain Car Showroom appears to be in a state of panic as the sales team rush around, throwing insults at each other, desperately trying to close deals, while the owner, Malcolm Chamberlain (Chris Mulkey) is in his office, barking orders and making unreasonable demands. His son, Mark, is on the shop floor, trying to hold everything together, while Mark’s wife, Ashley (Stefanie Butler) is on the phone, trying to talk seriously with her young husband about a marriage that is soon to fall apart. “Today I’ve had to do some things I’m not exactly proud of,” he tells her, though at this point, what he’s had to do is not exactly clear. He begs her to let him finish the work day before talking any further, but she’s not having any of it. Then the clock stops, and things go into rewind. The day begins, and suddenly we see what has occurred to cause the building panic.
The car manufacturer back at corporate is about to open a new dealership in the valley, and boss Malcolm wants it. But in order to get it he has to have $300,000 in escrow by Monday. He can get $150,000 if he doesn’t pay his staff, but he needs the other half. His son, Mark wants to be the manager of that new dealership, so his dad gives his boy something to aim for, which includes firing one of the salesmen. “You hit 300 retail, sold and reported by five o’clock, and put a bullet in Scott’s head, then that new dealership is yours.” From that point, everyone who sets foot in the dealership is considered a stone, cold buyer.
Malcolm is that nightmare kind of boss who can justify everything he does by stating it’s just business, as if that somehow excuses him from acting like a monster. The banner on the wall of his sales department displays the motto, Whatever It Takes. Without a hint of irony, he insists that what he does, he does in self-interest, “Nothing more, nothing less.” His son, Mark, isn’t made from the same stock. He’s ambitious, sure, and his desire for having his own dealership is almost all-encompassing – he still fires Scott, whose wife is expecting, knowing that man has been a loyal worker for twenty years – but it’s eating at him from the inside. When Mark’s wife turns up at the store in the middle of the day to confront her husband, Mark tries to assure her that once the day is over, that target of 300 is reached and his dad gives him the management position at the new dealership, everything will change. But as his wife replies, “The new store shouldn’t be the catalyst for everything being different.”
The film’s marketing department has made the movie’s poster look upbeat and cheery, as if audiences are in for a whacky, fast-paced, comical ride, but there are no laughs in Car Dogs. These people, including Mark for whom we’re presumably supposed to root, are hugely unpleasant, knowingly playing around with customer’s minds and living up to that dealership motto of whatever it takes in order to close the deal. When Christian (George Lopez) is trying to get a hesitating couple to sign for a new vehicle, he steps aside and asks saleswoman Sharon (Nia Vardalos), “You up for a little Playhouse 90?” Together they play-act in front of potential buyers and pretend there’s another interested party about to sign for the same car. Christian is also training a newbie nicknamed Green Pea (Joe Massingill) and talks in terms of who is considered to be the lord of the Phoenix desert on the dealership shop floor, the gazelle or the lion. It turns out that Christian is not only the lion, but a lion who’ll happily eat his young if it means extra commission.
The most relatable characters are the various customers who are pounced upon they moment they enter the shop floor, including a brief guest appearance from Octavia Spencer who clearly knows when something is not right. Her scene in the office with Mark when he’s forced to come clean and talk in a clear, honest, matter-of-fact tone about car salesman gives the film its single moment of gravitas. Plus, the good news; by the story’s end, there’s a hope of redemption for the film’s central character, and the satisfaction of seeing those who deserve to get their comeuppance get it, particularly one toady character described by his colleagues as a neanderthal in a pinstripe who “backstabs to get his way to the middle.”
For valley audiences, the locally recognizable locations add a big layer of interest. The film was shot in an abandoned dealership in front of the picturesque Papago Buttes, plus the opening credits make living in the desert appear so appealing. And knowing that several ASU grads and interns worked behind the scenes of the production elevates interest in the film’s production even further.
If you’ve ever wondered what a car salesman is talking about with his supervisor in the other room when he leaves you sitting at his desk after you’ve told him what you can and can’t afford, in Car Dogs you’ll find out. It’s like a magician who breaks ranks and tells you how the illusion was performed, much to the annoyance of the other performing magicians. Car salesmen won’t approve. Years ago, while negotiating a payment, I could see my salesman talking with his manager through the windows of a glass office. They were supposed to be talking about reducing the price to fit my budget; from an attempt to lip-read, I swear they were talking golf.
With characters not even their mothers would like, it’s difficult to enjoy the unfolding events in the way the film intends to entertain. If anything, the ultimate feel is one of sadness. With pressure from the top, you start to feel sorry for these people who go to these lengths to get you to buy, and worse, you feel even more sorry for yourself, knowing that at some time in the future you’ll have to re-enter their world. But at least, after seeing Car Dogs, you’ll have an idea of what they’re up to and how they’re doing it. Remember, when you get a number to go down, it can never go up. Take notes.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 104 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)