How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog

by Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter, 21 September 2000

TORONTO -- Other than Woody Allen films, comedies about curmudgeons are few and far between. Audiences tend to see little reason to sympathize with a perpetually disgruntled fussbudget who lashes out at everyone in his life. But screenwriter-director Michael Kalesniko has managed to pull off such a comedy with "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog," and he succeeds for two reasons: His protagonist is played by a rumpled yet robust Kenneth Branagh, who brings surprising warmth to the role of a playwright beset by problems on many fronts, and Kalesniko's script lets us understand immediately what's really bugging his hero -- the dreaded writer's block.

Movies about writers usually don't set boxoffice records, but this Millennium Films release has an unusually high ratio of laughs per minute. If Millennium carefully targets urban dwellers older than 25 and gets solid reviews, "How to Kill" should reverse those expectations. It was well-received as the closing-night film at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Crises come at Peter McGowan (Branagh) from many angles. There is, of course, dilemma No. 1: After a run of boxoffice successes as the angry young playwright of Los Angeles, McGowan has hit a wall. Three successive flops have devastated his self-confidence, so he decides to workshop an incomplete drama with a hotshot director (David Krumholtz) who is addicted to Petula Clark songs and two flighty actors (Jonathan Schaech and Kaitlin Hopkins). But the idea is not working.

Meanwhile, wife Melanie (Robin Wright Penn), a children's dance instructor, wants a child of her own; his mother-in-law (Lynn Redgrave) battles Alzheimer's; a stalker (Jared Harris) insists he's the real Peter McGowan; and the mutt next door barks all night.

Also new in the neighborhood is 10-year-old Amy (Suzi Hofrichter), afflicted with a mild case of cerebral palsy. Melanie invites the girl over frequently, hoping that Peter will warm up to children. This tactic fails miserably until his play's producer (Peter Riegert) and director insist that Peter's dialogue for a 10-year-old character doesn't ring true, so Peter befriends Amy to study her speech pattern.

"How to Kill" is, in essence, about the creative process and how an artist uses life for their own purposes. It also is about the selfishness to which an artist must cling if they are to achieve their goals. But this makes the film sound heavy -- which it never is.

Peter's ego-deflating situations keep him off-balance, in search of creative equilibrium. Kalesniko's writing and direction are ever on the prowl for the oddball and offbeat.

While structured shrewdly, the screenplay is made to appear random as Peter bumps from crisis to crisis. He makes friends with his stalker and, because the dog keeps him awake, takes dead-of-night strolls with the other Peter McGowan, thus having, in a sense, conversations with "himself."

A testy exchange between Peter and a morning talk-show interviewer (Peri Gilpin) -- portions of which crop up throughout the movie -- turns that interview into a dialogue between our hero and his Greek chorus, who upbraids the playwright for the sexism in his early works and the failure of his most recent ones. This is one of those rare films to which one must really listen as the acerbic remarks fly by rapid-fire and dialogue exchanges brim with wit.

There are rough patches, though. The mother-in-law's confusions serve little purpose and don't give Redgrave much to play. A key confrontation between McGowan and Amy's mother (Lucinda Jenney) is set up so poorly that it springs almost out of nowhere.

Other moments are total serendipity, including an encounter between Peter and a screenwriter at a party that adds little to the story but is a witty exchange that, if nothing else, should delight fellow writers.

Shooting in Vancouver, Kalesniko and his cinematographer and production designer have more or less reinvented Los Angeles, turning it into a state of mind rather like a small town instead of the usual smoggy, sun-blasted urban sprawl.

Millennium Films in association with Cinerenta
South Ford Pictures in association with Lonsdale Prods.
Producers: Michael Nozik, Nancy M. Ruff, Brad Weston
Director-screenwriter: Michael Kalesniko
Executive producer: Robert Redford
Co-executive producers: Willi Baer, Avi Lerner, Danny Dembort, Trevor Short, John Thompson
Director of photography: Hubert Taczanowski
Production designer: Stephen Lineweaver
Music: David Robbins
Costume designer: Mary Claire Hannan
Editor: Pamela Martin

Peter McGowan: Kenneth Branagh
Melanie McGowan: Robin Wright Penn
Amy Walsh: Suzi Hofrichter
Edna: Lynn Redgrave
Stalker: Jared Harris
Larry: Peter Riegert
Brian Sellars: David Krumholtz
Adam: Jonathan Schaech
Victoria: Kaitlin Hopkins
Running time -- 104 minutes

HTKYND Press Page | Home | News & Notes | Reading Room | Photo Gallery