How To Kill Your Neighbor's Dog

A dyspeptic Los Angeles playwright is driven to distraction by the petty irritations of day-to-day existence before realizing what really matters in life. English expatriate Peter McGowan (Kenneth Branagh) has forged a formidable reputation in the theater, where he's regarded as the foremost angry young man of his generation. At least, he was until he penned...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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A dyspeptic Los Angeles playwright is driven to distraction by the petty irritations of day-to-day existence before realizing what really matters in life. English expatriate Peter McGowan (Kenneth Branagh) has forged a formidable reputation in the theater, where he's regarded as the foremost angry young man of his generation. At least, he was until he penned a string of critically reviled flops. His hopes for a comeback are pinned on a two-person drama starring a soap opera hunk (Johnathan Schaech) and directed by a fey wunderkind (David Krumholtz), whose thoughts are couched entirely in Petula Clark lyrics. The rehearsals aren't going well, the rewrites are torturous and Peter's long-suffering wife, Melanie (Robin Wright Penn), desperately wants a child. Need it be said that in Peter's personal Hell, the kingdom of fatherhood abuts the perpetual lake of fire? In addition, the couple are caring for Melanie's Alzheimer's-stricken mother (Lynn Redgrave), the neighbors have bought a dog that barks all night, and the house across the street has been rented to a newly single mother (Lucinda Jenney) with a ten-year-old named Amy (Suzi Hofrichter). And wait, there's more: Peter has a stalker (Jared Harris) who's been skulking around the neighborhood introducing himself as Peter McGowan. Melanie takes an immediate shine to Amy, who has a mild physical disability that makes it hard for her to play with other kids, and invites her to use the weathered playhouse in their backyard. Peter sees straight through to Melanie's ulterior motive — maybe if Peter spends some time around children, he'll be more amenable to having one — but still finds himself charmed by this smart, resilient child whose overprotective mother is stifling her natural feistiness. And to his surprise, her presence helps him work through the problems that were plaguing his play... Could the brittle, tart-tongued Peter McGowan have a soft center? This slight slice of L.A. life is distinguished by two fine, subtle performances. Redgrave is quietly heartbreaking, sidestepping degenerative-disease clichés and playing the grim humor in deteriorating memory with understated assurance. Penn accomplishes the daunting task of revealing the spine beneath Melanie's sweet-natured tolerance of her perpetually disagreeable husband, without which her character would be a pathetic doormat. Branagh is less successful in negotiating the transformation to a kinder, gentler Peter McGowan — maturity reduces the character to a shadow of his former, energetically petulant self — but is more relaxed and less strenuously emphatic than is his norm.

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  • Released: 2001
  • Rating: R
  • Review: A dyspeptic Los Angeles playwright is driven to distraction by the petty irritations of day-to-day existence before realizing what really matters in life. English expatriate Peter McGowan (Kenneth Branagh) has forged a formidable reputation in the theater,… (more)

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