A Tale of 2 Neighbors, Both Pains in the Neck

New York Times, 22 February 2002
By Stephen Holden

Michael Kalesniko's acerbic comedy, "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog," is a Hollywood rarity, a movie about an icy grown-up heart-warmed by a child that doesn't wield emotional pliers to try to squeeze out tears. That frosty heart belongs to Peter McGowan (Kenneth Branagh), a whiny, cynical British-American playwright, nicknamed America's Favorite Bastard, who lives comfortably in a Los Angeles suburb with his wife, Melanie (Robin Wright Penn).

In trying to imagine possible parallels between Peter and any living playwright, none come to mind. That's just as well, since the lack of biographical verisimilitude frees the movie to go its own zany way. And besides, Peter is, to put it plainly, a royal pain in the neck whose response to the simplest question is a snidely clever rejoinder. It is a tribute to Mr. Branagh's considerable comic skills that he succeeds in making a potentially insufferable character likable by infusing him with the same sly charm that Michael Caine musters to seduce us into cozying up to his sleazier alter egos.

The child, Amy Walsh (Suzi Hofrichter), is an 8-year-old who moves in next door with her mother, Trina (Lucinda Jenney), and their very noisy dog, Baby. The movie takes its title from Peter's infuriated response to Baby's nighttime yapping, which drives him into fits of insomniac rage.

Amy, who can also be a pain in the neck, suffers from mild cerebral palsy, which has left her legs somewhat uncoordinated. Ostracized by her peers, she spends much of her time alone, doing things like giving elaborate tea parties for her dolls. As Peter grows fond of the girl, he inspires her with confidence. He coaxes her into jumping into a swimming pool, and in the movie's funniest and most complicated scene she dresses up as an Indian and does a wild interpretive dance to Johnny Preston's vintage novelty hit "Running Bear."

Until Amy comes into his life, Peter smugly professes to despise children, and when she first appears, he goes out of his way avoid her. But overnight, he changes his attitude after the actors in his newest play complain about his inauthentic children's dialogue. Contemporary children, they insist, do not use terms like "the bee's knees." Peter, who hasn't had a hit play since the 1980's, decides to cultivate Amy as a research project into how children really talk and, before long, he is attending one of Amy's tea parties, notebook in hand.

"How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" reminds us that when it comes to comedy, it's all in the writing. Mr. Kalesniko's satirically barbed screenplay, whose spirit harks back to the comic heyday of Blake Edwards, stirs up an insistent verbal energy that rarely flags. The jokes are attached to a story that throws in several original screwball twists, including the appearance of Peter's comic doppelgänger (Jared Harris), a stalker calling himself Peter McGowan, who prowls his neighborhood at night. During a bout of insomnia, the real Peter encounters the false one, and they strike up an edgy acquaintanceship.

An amusing satirical tangent finds Peter interviewed on a Los Angeles morning talk show, where his sarcastic responses so ruffle the interviewer (Peri Gilpin) that the mood of forced cordiality deteriorates into shouted insults. The program periodically cuts away to a jive-talking traffic reporter (Tamala Jones) who flings terms like "baby" from her helicopter.

We meet a police officer who, informed of Peter's theatrical celebrity, conjures the name "Andrew Dice Webber" to demonstrate his cultural literacy. The director of Peter's newest play (David Krumholtz) is a lisping theatrical wunderkind ludicrously obsessed with the Petula Clark songbook. Then there's a surly teenage baby sitter whose job description is to eat and watch television, and "if the kid turns blue, call 911."

Beneath its hard comic surface, the movie has an undertow of sadness, since Peter and Melanie are at loggerheads over whether to have children. Although Peter has tried to impregnate his wife, who desperately wants a child, he makes no secret of his reluctance.

An early scene in a gynecologist's office, where Melanie is being examined after testing positive for pregnancy, finds Peter compulsively spewing his inappropriately rancid bons mots. Personally, he jokes, sex education has always meant, "How do I get me some?" While Melanie is being probed, he lights a taboo cigarette and remarks on the odd anatomical placement of a woman's "gateway to paradise." When the examination reveals her test result to have been false, he quietly thanks God.

Sadly, it is the very qualities that distinguish "Dog" from run-of-the-mill comedies that may doom it at the box office. Audiences conditioned to getting weepy over saucer-eyed, downy-cheeked moppets and their empathetic caretakers will probably feel emotionally cheated by the film's tart, sugar-free wit.

"How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has profanity and scenes of gynecological and prostate examinations.


Written and directed by Michael Kalesniko; director of photography, Hubert Taczanowski; edited by Pamela Martin; music by David Robbins; production designer, Stephen Lineweaver; produced by Michael Nozik, Nancy M. Ruff and Brad Weston; released by Artistic License Films. Running time: 107 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Kenneth Branagh (Peter McGowan), Robin Wright Penn (Melanie McGowan), Suzi Hofrichter (Amy Walsh), Lynn Redgrave (Edna), Jared Harris (False Peter), Lucinda Jenney (Trina Walsh), Peter Riegert (Larry), Peri Gilpin (Debra Salhany), Tamala Jones (Laura Leeton), David Krumholtz (Brian Sellars) and Johnathon Schaech (Adam).

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