'Neighbor Slays'

San Francisco Examiner, 1 March 2002
By Joe Leydon
Special To The Examiner

Writer-director Michael Kalesniko has at least two things in common with Peter McGowan, the acerbic protagonist of his debut feature, "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog." Both men are savagely witty wordsmiths. And, for better or worse, both men remind us that, sometimes, you can be too smart for your own good.

I greatly enjoyed "Neighbor" when I caught its North American premiere 18 months ago at the Toronto Film Festival. Ever since, I've been impatiently awaiting its appearance at megaplexes everywhere. Odds are good, however, that Kalesniko has been even more impatient than I.

For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, most distributors were unimpressed -- or, more likely, intimidated -- by the whip-smart and rapier-sharp humor in Kalesniko's screenplay, and by the not-always-sympathetic crankiness of the movie's lead character. After a brief tour on the festival circuit, "Neighbor" wound up surfacing a few months back on a pay-cable network. It's only now receiving a limited theatrical run, perhaps as a pro-forma prelude to an impending home-video release.

So take my advice: Run, don't walk, to see this barbed and bracing comedy on the big screen while you still have the chance. It's well worth the price of first-run admission just to appreciate the fine, fearless precision of Kenneth Branagh's excellent lead performance as McGowan, a British-born, Los Angeles-based playwright who's still trading on his angry-young-man rep, even though he's well into the early middle-age of his discontent.

When he isn't overseeing rehearsals of his latest (and, evidently, not terribly good) play at an L.A. theater, or shamelessly promoting a book of curmudgeonly essays designed to revive his waning reputation as "America's Favorite Bastard," McGowan thoughtfully considers, and comes perilously close to rejecting, suggestions from his amazingly patient wife (Robin Wright Penn) that it's time for them to conceive their first child.

Truth to tell, McGowan still is too much of an arrested adolescent -- too unwilling to compete with anyone for his wife's attention, too pleased with himself and the sound of his own voice -- to be first-rate father material. He's the very worst kind of know-it-all, one who is usually right and doesn't ever let you forget it. His sarcastic bon mots and acidic put-downs recall Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic: Someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. And it's hard to argue with the actors and director of his current play when they suggest, none too gently, that McGowan knows nothing about children. Exhibit A: A child in the play refers to something as "the bee's knees." Like I said, the play likely isn't great shakes.

McGowan gets a chance to improve his dialogue -- and, better still, slightly sweeten his sour outlook -- when he reluctantly befriends one of his next-door neighbors, Amy Walsh (Suzi Hofrichter), a lonely 8-year-old girl saddled with a slight case of cerebral palsy and an over-protective mother (Lucinda Jenney).

Now I know what you're thinking: Danger! Sappiness Alert! But don't worry. Kalesniko isn't too quick to defrost McGowan's heart, and he's not too eager to render Amy as impossibly adorable. Indeed, in her own, none-too-sweet way, Amy often is every bit as annoying as her new grown-up buddy -- which, when you think about it, is probably why they become friendly in the first place.

Taking its cue from McGowan's book, "Neighbor" plays like a series of interconnected episodes more than a gracefully flowing narrative, and some segments are much funnier than others. When it is really, really funny -- like, when McGowan mercilessly badgers a happy-talk TV host into responding with atypically angry insults -- it is downright hilarious.

And even when it skates on thin ice, as it does in its seriocomic depiction of McGowan's mentally failing mother-in-law (Lynn Redgrave), you're still impressed by how far the movie steers away from sticky sentimentality.

There's a lot more I could tell you about "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" -- like the meaning of its title, or the nifty surprise in store after the closing credits -- but you shouldn't waste any more time reading about it when you could be seeing it for yourself instead. Go.


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