How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog
directed by Michael Kalesniko
(Millennium, 2000)

Playwright Peter McGowan can't figure out where his life has spun out of control.

The way he sees it, his wife thinks of nothing but having a baby; he's already helping care for his senile mother-in-law; the neighbors have just purchased a dog named Baby who barks all night; and his newest play ... the play ... well, the less said about his writer's block, the better.

For a born curmudgeon, it's all a bit much to bear.

Michael Kalesniko's How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog never really got any play beyond the film festival circuit. That's a surprise, considering the names involved: Kenneth Branagh as Peter, transplanted from England to L.A.; Robin Wright Penn as his wife, Melanie; the great Lynn Redgrave as mother-in-law Edna; fantastic newcomer Suzi Hofrichter as Amy, the little girl next door. And then there's the executive producer, some guy named Robert Redford.

But it's not only surprising, it's too bad. Your Neighbor's Dog took me a while to sink into, in part because it can't decide whether to be a rapid-fire comedy of wit, or a slightly wistful look at the choice to have children or not, and how one special child can make up your mind for you.

It's an awkward back-and-forth sometimes, but what saves Your Neighbor's Dog -- and, for filmgoers who love words, elevates it -- is Kalesniko's dialogue. That's another surprise, as this is the screenwriter who penned Howard Stern's Private Parts and the forgettable sci-fi thriller Spoiler.

Kalesniko's sense of Peter's dilemmas, his relationship with Melanie (who's much better written than just about any female role coming out of Hollywood) and his at-first tentative friendship with Amy, make the most of Branagh's gift. And it's nice to be reminded that Branagh is more than a Shakespearean who can bring Henry V to life on film.

Peter, for instance, has his very own stalker (which, along with a college course teaching his plays, means he's hit the big time). False Peter (Jared Harris) seems to be a harmless sort when Peter confronts him during a late-night insomnia walk, and the two begin a conversational partnership of sorts. They debate philosophy and Peter's hesitation about fatherhood.

He seems to be harmless enough for a stalker.

It's in Peter's scenes with Melanie and Amy, though, that Your Neighbor's Dog really begins to shine. Wright Penn makes it possible for us to understand how Melanie really could fall in love with Peter; she brings out the best in him, just as Wright Penn keeps Branagh's sometimes broad style under control.

It's a low-key performance that suits him perfectly with young Amy as his foil. His initial horror at the sight of a kid's bike being taken off the U-Haul delivering new neighbors melds into a kind of acceptance at how a child's imagination may deliver him out of his writer's block.

And his fears of not having a perfect child begin to slip away as he realizes that Amy's handicap doesn't affect the person she is.

Not quite comedy, not quite drama, but fully worth watching.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 19 April 2002

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