How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog (June 18/02)
Here's another example of a good film that must have baffled the folks in the marketing department. Though it does contain a subplot about a man who wants to kill his neighbor's dog, the movie is about so much more than that. But as far as asking a marketer to promote an intelligent and complicated story aimed at adults…well, they'd rather make the movie appear to be a black comedy about a frustrated writer and his pesky neighbor's dog.
Which it is about, in a way. Kenneth Branagh stars as Peter, a playwright who had a hit several years ago but has not produced anything substantial in a good long while. He's working on a new play, but finds himself distracted in virtually every aspect of his life. His wife (played by Robin Wright Penn) is unsuccessfully trying to convince him that it's time to have a baby, while his neighbor's noisy dog won't shut up at night. But he soon strikes up an unlikely friendship with a disabled little girl who's family has just moved in. Peter finds that he enjoys spending time with the girl, teaching her things and, in turn, learning how to relax and play.
How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog isn't the sort of film that gets made much. It doesn't really have a plot; rather, it's concerned mostly with the development of Peter. Between the time the movie begins and ends, we see Peter undergo a transformation that never feels forced or artificial. Initially, Peter is a person who deals with people using acidic barbs that would be more at home in one of his plays. He has a low-tolerance for stupidity, and never shies away from speaking his mind. It's the sort of character that most actors probably relish playing, and Branagh is certainly up to the task. The many sarcastic and witty rejoinders offered up by Peter roll of Branagh's tongue with ease (no surprise considering how many Shakespeare adaptations he's involved with). The supporting cast is just as good, with Wright Penn delivering another fantastic performance as Peter's slightly flighty but ever-loving wife.
The film falters only in the development of the subplot featuring Peter's friendship with the little girl. Though it's initially an odd couple sort of relationship, the two become close friends…which causes her mother to suspect something funny's going on. It's a reasonable suspicion, I suppose, but it's entirely the wrong way to resolve this storyline. It feels too safe and movie-of-the-week like, which is entirely the wrong vibe to get from a movie that had been otherwise intelligent and risky.
Nevertheless, How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog is certainly worth checking out, if only for Branagh's magnificent performance. But don't let that title fool you; the movie's about a lot more than that.
*** out of ****
© David Nusair 2002