Man's Best Friend?

How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog doesn't deliver on its promises

With its catchy (if arguably distasteful) title and first-rate cast, How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog promises vastly more than it delivers. An L.A.-based Brit playwright in a slump (Kenneth Branagh) tries to fix his latest play, while arguing with his wife (Robin Wright Penn) about whether to have a baby. To make things worse, the neighbor's dog won't stop barking at night--hence the title--and there's a homeless lunatic (Jared Harris) hanging about the area, trying to steal his identity. Despite his crusty exterior, our hero begins to change when an adorable pre-adolescent moppet (Suzi Hofrichter) moves in next door.

After his theater colleagues agree that the child character in his play--always offstage, but crucial nonetheless--is unconvincing, he starts hanging out with Amy for research. You can see where this is going: Irascible curmudgeon, initially interested only in exploiting a little girl for his art, is won over by her charm and unearths the paternal instinct long buried beneath his cynical exterior.

The feature directorial debut of Michael Kalesniko (co-writer of Howard Stern's Private Parts) isn't a total wipeout, but it's easy to see why the film initially went straight to the Starz! cable network. (Less obvious is the rationale behind this theatrical release, only a month before the DVD is due in stores.) Branagh is always fun to watch, and I'm in favor of any film that keeps the wonderful Peter Riegert, veteran of Animal House and Local Hero, in front of the camera. Hofrichter is suitably winning, while Lynn Redgrave does the best she can with her tired material. And although this particular thematic arc is well-worn--having worked previously in Silas Marner, Little Miss Marker, several John Ford films and roughly a million other sentimental narratives--it's practically foolproof, and it doesn't fail here, either.

Local zeroes: Peter Riegert and Kenneth Branagh are stuck in a TV movie playing on the big screen.
Local zeroes: Peter Riegert and Kenneth Branagh are stuck in a TV movie playing on the big screen.

But Kalesniko doesn't bring much new to the ancient tried-and-true story of a curmudgeon's heart melted by an adorable child, and he mucks things up with some clunky exposition and a narrative structure that comes across more as random than as intriguingly complex. There is nothing feloniously awful about the whole thing, but the laughs are tepid and too infrequent. Last year's Maybe Baby offered a much funnier take on a similar plot.

 
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