TORONTO 2000 REVIEW: A Rare Beast, Kalesniko's "How To Kill Your Neighbor's Dog"

by Eddie Cockrell

(indieWIRE/ 9.18.00) -- In a comfortably contemporary Los Angeles suburb (the film was shot in Vancouver), curmudgeonly playwright Peter McCowen (Branagh) struggles with revisions of his new play in the midst of a nasty case of artistic doldrums that seem to be feeding his insomnia. Each day he goes to the theater workshopping the production, where maddeningly unconfrontational director Brian Sellars (David Krumholtz) puts actors Adam (Jonathon Schaech) and Victoria (Kaitlin Hopkins) through their paces under the watchful eye of the playwright, Larry the producer (Peter Riegert) and the theater's know-it-all janitor (Brett Rickaby). Unfortunately, McCowen can't seem to lick a number of problems with the play, not the least of which is the veracity of an unseen child character.

His wife Melanie (Robin Wright Penn), disappointed at what is apparently another false positive pregnancy, becomes increasingly convinced he doesn't want children at all (she's not far wrong). McCowen's also flogging his first book, a collection of meditations on "suburban terrorism" called, appropriately enough, "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog." Appropriate because in addition to the sudden and incessant nocturnal barking of just such a beast, McCowen's astonished to learn that an actual child, Amy (Suzi Hofrichter), has moved into the neighborhood with her mother Trina (Lucinda Jenney), who is perhaps overly protective due to the child's mild cerebral palsy. Amy's not the only physically afflicted person in Peter's life: Melanie's mother Edna (Lynn Redgrave) wears a prosthetic leg and also seems to routinely forget exactly who he is.

Appearing on a local morning news program, he's asked a series of inane questions by interviewer Debra Selhany (Peri Gilpin) that devolve into open warfare. Meanwhile, a mysterious stalker, dubbed "False Peter" (Jared Harris) is roaming the neighborhood at night and actually becomes the real McGowen's nocturnal companion in ruminations.

Before long, Peter's gambit to get authentic kids dialogue from Amy leads to a bonding between them; this and the sudden elimination of the annoying dog gives the film some late-inning drama not at all out of step with the rest of the film (audience members who dawdle through the final cast crawl will learn the animal's true fate).

The kind of narratively complex feature whose bare-bones plot can exhaust the reviewer's available word count, "Dog" manages to give each story arc the room it needs to breathe, grow and come to a logical conclusion. As the plot plays out, Kalesniko has peppered the screenplay with erudite witticisms: a cop thinks the famous musical writer is Andrew Dice Webber, while McCowen describes his inability to be intimate with his wife by ruefully telling the doctor, "I think the doorbell's heard I'm coming' more than I have lately."

As strident as he was in Woody Allen's undervalued "Celebrity," Branagh is equally muted here, a creative bundle of nerves who, when forced out of a self-imposed exile in his backyard bungalow office, processes the terrors of everyday life with a non-stop barrage of cheery wisecracks. As the movie's most improbably patient presence, Wright Penn neatly masks the screenplay's shortcomings in logic^╦why would she ever stay with this guy?^╦to create a sweetly tolerant yet strong woman. Ten-year-old Pittsburgh-born Suzi Hofrichter has none of the false and cloying sunnyness found in many moppet performances these days, while Lynn Redgrave scores once again in another pungent supporting role reminiscent of her distinctive, Oscar-nominated turn in "Gods and Monsters" (who'd've thought "Georgy Girl" would become such a fine character actress?). The rest of the cast is uniformly fine, although the caricatured gayness of Krumholtz' character grows wearisome almost immediately.

In much the same way this year's Berlin festival provided a warm and sunny treat for weary industry-ites with a morning show of their closing night presentation, Bruno Barreto's sparkling "Bossa Nova," the Toronto brain trust is displaying "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" in the best possible light via the plum Closing Night Gala slot. Here's to hoping the film has a better fate in the U.S. than Barreto's; at presstime it was still apparently distributorless but would certainly click with American audience starved for smart, pungent comedy.

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