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TV Review: Branagh makes a fine curmudgeon in 'Neighbor's Dog'

Friday, October 26, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" snared the prestigious closing-night slot at the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival. But it did not make a theatrical distribution deal until after the pay-cable deal was struck. So the movie makes its debut tomorrow on Starz!, a premium channel that some cable systems carry only on the digital tier.

'How To Kill
Neighbor's Dog'

WHEN: It airs at 8 p.m. tomorrow on Starz!


That may be appropriate because so many of the characters converse in punch lines, like a sitcom making its quota. "Neighbor's Dog" centers on a curmudgeonly playwright whose bark, to absolutely no one's surprise, 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 are equal to the formidable task of bringing him down to size. His wife, Melanie (Robin Wright Penn), a dance instructor, wants a child as desperately as he doesn't. And then there is Amy (Pittsburgh's own Suzi Hofrichter), the 8-year-old girl whose parents have moved in next door. She 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. Another neighbor's new dog barks through the night, and if that's not enough to keep him awake, 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. But now Amy lives next door. Could she be the answer to his dilemma?

Their relationship becomes the heart of the movie. Hofrichter (currently on stage in "Anne of Avonlea" at Little Lake Theater) gives Amy a vulnerable innocence that keeps her from sounding like a smartmouthed 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 -- a relatively harmless obsessed fan (Jared Harris) who becomes the playwright's nocturnal sounding board and a writer he meets at a costume party who mistakes him for an executive and gives him a taste of his own angry medicine.

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.

Watching the movie, that is. Leave the mutt next door alone.

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