Writer-director Michael Kalesniko’s “How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog” is an entertaining look at standard issue concerns such as relationships, family, friendship and career as they affect a cynical, Los Angeles-based British playwright determined to resist change. While the direction is a little anonymous and could use some verve, the comedy-drama gets by thanks to a solid script, witty dialogue and engaging performances, which could help the small but satisfying pic land some minor theatrical dates before proceeding to cable and video.
Once the golden boy of the U.S. stage with his angry-young-man plays about sexual politics, Peter McGowen (Kenneth Branagh) has had a recent string of flops that have made him even more jaded. His wife, Melanie (Robin Wright Penn), manages to keep a sunny disposition despite Peter’s grumpy worldview.
But while she’s eager to have a child, his parenting urges are well concealed, and he maintains they have enough to deal with given his ailing career and Melanie’s dotty mother (Lynn Redgrave), who suffers from Alzheimer’s. The neighbors’ incessantly barking dog doesn’t help either.
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With a new play in rehearsal that he hopes will put him back on top, Peter is informed by his director and cast that the dialogue written for a child in the piece sounds false. Despite his initial aversion to the idea, Peter befriends Amy (Suzi Hofrichter), a neighbor’s daughter mildly handicapped by cerebral palsy, using her as a model to rework the role. Amy’s presence in their lives sends Melanie’s maternal instincts into overdrive and softens Peter toward the prospect of having a child.
While the story arc of Peter and Melanie’s relationship with Amy moves to a touching conclusion, the film’s main register is a comic one. Branagh delivers his many one-liners with effortless aplomb, making Peter a smart, sympathetic grouch. Wright Penn is charming and likable, and Redgrave balances her character’s humorous moments of dementia with the lucid awareness that her life is on the closing stretch.
Johnathon Schaech has little to do as an actor in Peter’s play, while Jared Harris’ character — an amiable stalker, who eventually shows a dangerous side — never rings true.
Cleanly shot but visually ordinary, the production makes repeated use of the 1960s hits of Petula Clark, which is never justified beyond them being a passion of Peter’s director.