'How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog': A Good Snarl

By Ron Weiskind, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5 April 2002

The Post-Gazette reviewed "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" last fall when it premiered on the Starz! cable TV channel. The movie gets its local theatrical premiere starting tonight at the Denis Theater. Here is an edited version of the PG review.

"How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" finally arrives in a local movie house this weekend, five months after appearing on a cable movie channel. Like a TV sitcom making its quota, many of the characters converse in punch lines.

"Neighbor's Dog" centers on a curmudgeonly playwright whose bark is worse than his bite. Pathos is the sure antidote for sarcasm, which is why MGM always tacked a sappy love story onto its Marx Brothers films.

I'm a Groucho kind of guy, so I enjoy the rants in "Neighbor's Dog" that the film's surly scribe, Peter McGowan (Kenneth Branagh), delivers against children, canines, bad drivers, hostile interviewers, life in Los Angeles. You can discern the voice of the movie's screenwriter and director, Michael Kalesniko, in these diatribes.

But some of Peter's foils bring him down to size. His wife, Melanie (Robin Wright Penn), wants a child as desperately as he doesn't. Amy (Pittsburgh's own Suzi Hofrichter), the 8-year-old girl whose parents have moved in next door, walks with a limp but takes no guff from Peter, who tolerates children only slightly better than W.C. Fields.

He fears that Amy's presence somehow is a ploy by Melanie to soften him up for fatherhood. But he has other worries, too. His last three plays have bombed and the new one has dialogue problems centered on a juvenile character. He doesn't know how real kids act and talk. Could Amy be the answer to his dilemma?

Hofrichter gives Amy a vulnerable innocence that keeps her from sounding like a smart-mouthed sitcom kid when she banters with Peter. But Kalesniko makes up for it with a parade of offbeat characters and situations that make the film busier than it really needs to be.

This includes Peter's mother-in-law (Lynn Redgrave), who is afflicted with Alzheimer's and keeps telling him he looks like her son-in-law; the director of his play (David Krumholtz), who is gay and addicted to Petula Clark songs; and not one but two McGowan doppelgangers.

While Kalesniko may not know when to quit, he was smart enough to understand you can't go too far wrong with Branagh and Penn -- two attractive and dependable pros -- leading his cast. They invest the characters with enough wit and humanity to make "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" a pleasant experience.

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