Starring: Kenneth Brannagh, Robin Wright Penn, David Krumholtz, Lynn Redgrave
Director: Michael Kalesniko
I almost always expect Kenneth Brannagh to be donning a dodgy middle-ages moustache or flowery blouse whenever I see him on screen. His fascination with Shakespeare has been the bedrock of his career with successful productions of “Hamlet”, “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Henry V” behind him. But he’s also tried his hand at more mainstream work – 1991 thriller “Dead Again” and follow-up comedy, “Peter’s Friends” for example. In 2000, he took his hands off the reigns, merely starring in Michael Kalesniko’s directorial debut, “How to Kill Your Neighbour’s Dog”.
Peter McGowan (Brannagh) is a British playwright living in LA. After considerable success in the 80s, his 90s output has struggled to make the grade and now he’s agitated, struggling to sleep, chain-smoking and impotent. His excitable wife Melanie (Wright Penn – “The Pledge”, “Moll Flanders”, “Forrest Gump”, “The Playboys”), is pressuring him to have kids – something that is not on Peter’s agenda.
Add to that the incessant night-time barking of his neighbour’s dog, a stalker who claims he is Peter McGowan and the new eight-year old kid, Amy (Suzi Hofrichter), who hangs around his garden every day, and Peter’s hemorrhoids might not be the worst of his problems.
Maybe all Peter needs is to find his magic again, but work on his latest production is moving slowly, director Brian Sellars (Krumholtz – “10 Things I Hate About You”, “The Mexican”) and prima-donna actor Adam (Johnathon Schaech) unimpressed with the dialogue that Peter has written for the child character in the play. Peter needs to find some inspiration – maybe Amy can be that for him?
It might be little known, but it’s not under-appreciated. “How to Kill Your Neighbour’s Dog” made a splash in 2000, winning several jury and audience awards and chosen to close the Toronto film festival.
One of the main success’ of Kalesniko’s script is that he keeps things light-hearted despite occasionally making scathing observations about Hollywood (‘If you want to be happy in Hollywood, be a cinematographer. Nobody knows what you’re doing, so they can’t screw with you’) and human beings in general. When Melanie suggests that Peter see a doctor about his anxiety, he replies ‘What if he cures me? Then, I’ll have nothing to write about. Nobody wants to know about how happy you are’.
There is perhaps a more political side to the shtick. During a TV interview, Peter calmly tells interviewer Debra Salhany: ‘Do you ever think that if you attack an artist long enough, that you’ll succeed in having him censor himself?’ The dialogue succeeds in the main save for some occasions when it sounds like McGowan’s smart-arse replies have come right off a cue card.
The manic, mid-life crisis that seems to be enveloping Peter is amusing and while initially not caring much for his predicaments, one quickly warms to his character. Credit for this goes to Brannagh, massively underrated actor that he is. Puffing continuously on a cigarette, swearing at his neighbour’s dog, frequently not bothering to shave, dismissing young Amy with a sharp tone and paying little attention to his deteriorating mother-in-law (Redgrave – “Shine”, “Gregory Girl”), it is remarkable that you still smile at his frequent rants and take him at face value.
The rest of the cast do fine. Wright Penn is not pushed in her role but she carries it off as well as should be expected. Redgrave, veteran of the screen, has little to do but mutter and look lost which she does sufficiently and the supporting acts of Krumholtz, Schaech and Peter’s obsessed fan, Peter (Jared Harris – “Mr Deeds”, “Smoke”, “Natural Born Killers”), have their moments amongst it all.
This is a good movie. I don’t think it’s award-winning caliber but essentially you go in expecting occasional entertainment and you get a good sight more in the end. There is potential in the head of Kalesniko and I’d keep an eye on his next one. I expect a Christopher Guest-style approach where we’ll see him teaming up with Wright Penn and Brannagh again.