Rough Plays, Ruff Nights, 22 February 2002
By Gene Seymour

(2 1/2 STARS) HOW TO KILL YOUR NEIGHBOR'S DOG (R). Kenneth Branagh's energetic sweet-and-sour performance as a curmudgeonly British playwright grounds this overstuffed, erratic dramedy in which he and his improbably forbearing wife (Robin Wright Penn) contend with craziness and child-rearing in Los Angeles. With Jared Harris, Peter Riegert, Lynn Redgrave and Suzi Hofrichter. Written and directed by Michael Kalesniko. 1:47 (vulgar language, sexual situations). At select theaters.

FROM THE TIP of its title to the bottom of its heart, "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" may talk way too much for its own good. Much of what the movie spouts about life, art, love and friendship sounds as if you've heard it all before - and you probably have. And yet, like the harassed, yet patient spouse (Robin Wright Penn) of its misanthropic, but cuddly hero (Kenneth Branagh), you put up with a lot of refined bluster and unfocused energy in order to extract some tart pleasures along the way.

The most noteworthy pleasure is Branagh himself. As Peter McCowan, aging wunderkind of the British theater now struggling to write plays in Los Angeles, Branagh takes full advantage of the juiciest leading role he's had in a movie outside of his Shakespeare adaptations. Writer- director Michael Kalesniko gives Branagh's McCowan an overabundance of ribald wisecracks and witticisms that Branagh handles with beguiling ease. Where just about any other actor would have worn out his welcome with such baggage after the first reel, Branagh finds the soft core beneath his character's layers of crust and leaks the gooier aspects with care.

Penn, though not as dominant a presence as Branagh, strikes subtly realistic chords in her portrayal of Peter's improbably forbearing wife, Melanie, a children's dance teacher who desperately wants kids of her own. Peter, coping badly with a professional losing streak, is just as desperately resistant to the idea of being a father. Along with writer's block, Peter also must cope with a neighbor's dog whose barking keeps him from sleeping - or doing anything else in bed. He goes out for walks and meets a vagrant (Jared Harris), who's been telling people that he is Peter McCowan.

On top of all this, Peter's latest play has hit a wall during rehearsals where cast and director tell him that his conception of a phantom child character sounds false and unrealistic. Enter Amy (Suzi Hofrichter), the handicapped, whip-smart 8-year-old daughter of another neighbor. She taps into Melanie's maternal instincts and, while helping Peter with his play, wears down his resistance to having a little person in the house.

Kalesniko, best known for having co-written the script to the underrated Howard Stern biocomedy, "Private Parts" (1997), has loaded these and other narrative elements into a near-novelistic stew that often seems too thick to go down. But the energy and verve of his cast thin the mixture considerably. It's always a pleasure to watch such masterly character actors as Peter Riegert as Peter's droll producer and Lynn Redgrave as Melanie's Alzheimer's-afflicted mom. Still, it's Branagh who clearly triumphs in a role that neatly displays both the pleasures and perils of living too much within your own head.

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