It’s easy to see why Kenneth Branagh jumped at the chance to play Peter McGowan, the protagonist of writer Michael Kalesniko’s directorial debut. McGowan isn’t just an intellectual– a playwright–but he’s a curmudgeon, too, with an unfailingly sharp tongue. He’s a modern version of someone who might have been created by Noel Coward, a person never at a loss for a witty remark or a snappy riposte. As such the character isn’t remotely like any human being who actually exists, but although he may be somewhat fatiguing for us to listen to for ninety minutes straight, he must have been a perfect joy to perform. Only one scene in the script might have given Branagh a bit of pause: a sequence in a proctologist’s office in which McGowan must writhe about on an examining table and bitterly complain about the experience. Even here, however, the writer proves to know exactly what to say and how best to say it, with the result that the episode, however grotesque, is the funniest in the picture. Surely that’s sufficient consolation for any indignity.
Of course, the very fact that a prostate examination is the most amusing thing in “How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog” is indicative of a problem. Quite simply, the rest of the picture is overwritten it’s either too pretentiously literary or overly sentimental. The steady stream of snappy patter coming from McGowan gets wearying (and his supposed career as a playwright in Los Angeles, a town hardly known for its theatrical life, seems totally implausible, too); it all has the aroma of authorial desperation, rather like encountering a person so terrified of any silence in a conversation that he keeps prattling on even when he has little to say. Moreover, a subplot involving a Doppelganger is too arch by half. Equally, or more unsatisfactory in the larger narrative, which has the misanthropic McGowan gradually warming to his wife’s desire for a child as a result of the evolution of his friendship with Amy (Suzi Hofrichter), a neighborhood girl suffering from cerebral palsy. Scenes like one in which McGowan, trying to discern how real children act so that he can write a young character persuasively, participates in the girl’s tea party and learns how to “pretend” are too cute for comfort (with Branagh, it must be said, mugging shamelessly). Others, such as that in which McGowan stands up to Amy’s rigid, over- protective mother (Lucinda Jenney), are written and played very stridently. And still others–like Peter and Amy’s long, teary goodbye–are just cloying.
There are, however, compensations in some of the supporting characters. Robin Wright Penn is sitcomish as McGowan’s ever-patient spouse, but Peter Riegert extracts some humor from the stock figure of his cynical producer, while David Krumholtz manages to make his fey director more likable than one would expect. Jonathan Schaech is also amusing as the soap opera hunk trying to show his thespian mettle by starring in Peter’s latest play, even though the satire here is awfully obvious. On the other hand, Jared Harris can’t do much with the role of Peter’s angry stalker (a literary conceit if ever there was one, designed to show the protagonist how his excesses might appear to others), and Lynn Redgrave is surprisingly blank as his mother-in-law, a mentally addled lady who nonetheless predictably rouses herself to give one incisive speech to him. Peri Gilpin, of “Frasier,” is stuck in the part of an inept TV interviewer whose session with McGowan on a morning news show (bits of which are interspersed through the film, allowing for some easy shots at such programs) turns out badly.
“How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog”–a title refers to one of the circumstances that bothers the hero, a barking mongrel next door–is sporadically amusing, and has some good lines and offbeat characters. In the final analysis, though, it seems to have been more fun for Branagh to play than it is for us to watch.