Review of How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog
A Funny, Literate, and Genuinely Moving Little Comedy Starring Kenneth Branagh and Robin Wright Penn
Film Force, 23 February 2002
How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog is one of those wonderful "little" movies – little, that is, in the best sense; low-budget and small scale, full of big ideas but not a big production. It's also one of those rare comedies that's genuinely funny (at least to me) because it presents smart characters in amusing situations rather than stupid characters doing stupid things. It also features one of Kenneth Branagh's best performances in years; he stars as Peter McGowan, a former wunderkind playwright who, at thirty-five, seems on the verge of being washed up. It doesn't help that he lives in L.A. (not exactly a theater town), and that his loving wife (Robin Wright Penn) is pressuring him to have children. As Peter struggles through the impending production of his newest play, he also finds himself uneasily befriending a little girl whose single mom has moved in next door – he initially undertakes this kindness as "research," but, as it always is in movies like this, the prickly porcupine begins to show his soft side.
In summary form, How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog probably sounds like a million other movies (As Good As It Gets comes to mind most notably), and while it does have certain formulaic qualities, writer/director Michael Kalesniko is smart enough to throw in enough curveballs to keep us on our toes. We just know for instance that the not-always-likable Peter will turn out okay, but it's sort of a surprise how he gets there. It makes perfect sense that the film is so good at getting inside an unusual and potentially off-putting character – Kalesniko's previous major credit as a writer was on the Howard Stern film Private Parts.
The film also gets a lot of mileage out of Branagh, who really brings his role to life; Robin Wright Penn is also quite good, making the most out of what is essentially the "straight man" in this odd couple (she also looks just adorable with dark hair and a pixie cut). There's also a really fabulous turn by Jared Harris as – get this – Peter's stalker, who prowls the playwright's L.A. neighborhood in an effort to emulate his hero.
Another wonderful thing in the film – and this will mean more to Los Angelinos than anyone else – is Kalesniko's laser-precise dissection of life in the City of Angels. From creepily chirpy helicopter traffic reports on TV ("there's a twelve-car pile up on the 405!") to its depiction of a hideous Hollywood party, this is a movie that could truly have only been made by someone who loves and hates and intimately knows Los Angeles and the odd creatures who inhabit it.
Kalesniko does occasionally slip – there are a few bad choices, most notably in the presentation of a gay theater director who's so much a caricature that he has a lisp and belts out pop tunes (the characterization isn't really homophobic or offensive, but just plays really dumb and cliched in such an otherwise smart movie). And, as a first-time director, Kalesniko does sometimes feel a little unsure of himself – but this can be forgiven, considering the sharpness of the writing.
Overall, How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog (the title refers to a constantly barking neighborhood canine who exacerbates Peter's insomnia) is a surprising and supremely enjoyable discovery. The type of film that would be easy to overlook, it deserves to be seen and enjoyed, flaws and all; both as an entertaining experience unto itself and as the debut of a writer/director to watch. Rating: 3 1/2 stars