'How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog'

"How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" is a dreary title for an even drearier picture, which stars Kenneth Branagh as a British expatriate who has settled in Los Angeles to become its "most successful playwright." Branagh's Peter McGowen is apparently in the tradition of the Angry Young Men of the '60s who transformed the English theater--"apparently" because his current project, in rehearsal but deep in rewrites, seems merely vague and mediocre.

In any event, McGowen is not so young anymore but plenty cranky, especially since his last three plays have bombed. He is unbelievably fortunate in having for the past 10 years a beautiful and sublimely imperturbable wife, Melanie (Robin Wright Penn), who is as eager to have a child as he is not. Her wishes, at least for the moment, are beside the point, because McGowen is in the throes of his first experience with impotence. He's not at all thrilled that Melanie has been so welcoming to some new neighbors, Trina (Lucinda Jenney), freshly separated from her husband, and her little daughter, Amy (Suzi Hofrichter). When his theatrical colleagues point out that he has no idea of how children talk, he abruptly starts to pay attention to Amy, which, we're given to understand, improves the play-in-progress and most definitely improves McGowen's spirits in spite of himself. He actually starts pitching in, fixing up the derelict playhouse in his backyard for Amy.

In the meantime, a homeless man (Jared Harris) has started hanging around the neighborhood passing himself off as McGowen, an awkward and artificial contrivance that allows yet further opportunity for McGowen, when he finally meets his doppelganger, to sound off at length. (Harris' phony McGowen also becomes the source of the film's title.)

Writer-director Michael Kalesniko hasn't a clue about how to make all of this come alive on the screen until the film shifts gears from the caustic to the sentimental, when we receive the surprising news that Amy suffers from cerebral palsy--it has to be the mildest case on record--and her mother abruptly reveals herself to be an excessively overly protective parent who's been harboring a great deal of anger at Peter and Melanie for inspiring her daughter to attempt to sing and dance and in general spread her wings. This allows for some mild heart-tugging, which is a very slight improvement on the emotional vacuum that precedes it.

If Jenney's role sounds thankless, how about Lynn Redgrave having to find humor in senility as Melanie's mother? Or David Krumholtz as the flamboyantly gay director of McGowen's play who likes to cheer up his actors (Johnathon Schaech, Kaitlin Hopkins) and producer (Peter Riegert) with his renditions of the vintage Petula Clark hits "Downtown" and "Don't Sleep in the Subway"? These stalwart supporting players deserve special sympathy.

Occasionally, McGowen's contrary behavior has its points and is even amusing, but that is far from enough to make this movie work. Not helping matters is that "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" has been shot in Vancouver, Canada, in the blandest, most generic of settings without a single palm tree in view. (The film was actually shot in 1999 but not shown until last year.) It leaves one to wonder what Robert Redford saw in this project to inspire him to sign on as its key executive producer.

MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines. Along with the four-letter words, the film is also unsuitable for impressionable small children because it shows a dog dead from a gunshot wound.

'How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog'

Kenneth Branagh...Peter McGowen

Robin Wright Penn...Melanie McGowen

Suzi Hofrichter...Amy Walsh

Lynn Redgrave...Edna

Lucinda Jenney...Trina Walsh

An Artistic License Films release of a Millennium Films presentation in association with Cinerenta of a South Fork Pictures production in association with Lonsdale Productions. Writer-director Michael Kalesniko. Producers Michael Nozik, Nancy M. Ruff, Brad Westin. Executive producer Robert Redford. Co-executive producers Willi Baer, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbert, Trevor Short, John Thompson. Cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski. Editor Pamela Martin. Music David Robbins. Costumes Mary Claire Hannan. Production designer Stephen Lineweaver. Art director Doug Byggdin. Set decorator Mary-Lou Storey.

Playing at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; the Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; the Fallbrook 7, 6731 Fallbrook Ave., West Hills, (818) 340-8710.

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