Keeping It Real, 'Dog' Shows Family Matters

Boston Globe, 8 March 2002
By Jonathan Perry

We know that Peter McGowan (Kenneth Branagh) - "LA's most successful, if not only successful, playwright" - is ambivalent about having kids when we see him during the first few minutes of this bitterly funny film light up a cigarette as his hopeful wife, Melanie (Robin Wright Penn), undergoes a gynecological exam not more than 2 feet away. He's both startled and annoyed when the appalled doctor commands him to put it out at once.

Even on his best days, Peter's a cheerfully antisocial curmudgeon. But the prospect of fathering a child - and the fact that a case of writer's block has rendered him impotent - has made him more pugnacious and wary than ever. "Suppose he turns out to be really stupid," he says to Melanie, who gently dismisses his panic as selfish. "I am selfish because I don't love something that doesn't exist?" he retorts. Why, he asks, does that automatically make him selfish and her magnanimous?

These are the kinds of pungent real-life exchanges - tartly comical and spilling over with messy emotions and flawed personal perspective - that make this enigmatic gem feel like a snappy riff on gender politics and the emotional disarray of modern-day relationships. In fact, writer-director Michael Kalesniko fires off so many ruthlessly clever lines and glib asides that they sail past and ricochet off one another almost faster than you can snatch them out of the air.

The film's dramatic heart lies not only with the compressed wit and tight-lipped disdain of Branagh's winning performance, but also with Penn's unenviable role as his straight man (or, in this case, straight woman). Her portrayal of Melanie is thoughtful, genuine, and sympathetic, and she doesn't give in to the cliche of a manipulative wife who hears her biological clock ticking.

Suzi Hofrichter is a scene-stealing natural as Amy Walsh, the precocious little girl with cerebral palsy who moves next door to the McGowans and is unfazed by her irascible playwright neighbor's initial belligerence toward her. We soon see that Amy is as innately intelligent and opinionated as Peter, and her condition has made her as much a loner and an outsider as he fancies himself.

By and large, "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" is an unpredictable, bittersweet, and vastly touching film that doesn't stoop to formula or preachy conclusions. There are comic twists, dramatic turns, and heartbreaking moments among the complicated relationships that make it a convincing snapshot of real life.

Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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