Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Review - Sleeping Dogs Lie

Even if it does nothing else, Sleeping Dogs Lie surely offers the most intriguing cinematic paradox of the year. Bobcat Goldthwait’s film is a disarmingly sweet and funny romantic comedy, which is based upon an act of bestiality. In the opening scene we meet Amy (Melinda Page Hamilton), an attractive college girl who is sitting alone with a book one night when she suddenly has a strange idea. Her dog is stretched out on its back in front of her, and his posture appears to be distracting Amy’s attention. Then, for reasons best known to herself, Amy decides to drop her book, lock the door, and get down on her knees to perform fellatio on her bemused (and presumably very grateful) pet.

That’s the opening scene of
Sleeping Dogs Lie, and it will undoubtedly prove a test for many members of the audience. The actual act itself occurs off screen, but the movement of Amy’s head and the expression on her dog’s face precludes any confusion as to what is taking place, and when Amy rushes spluttering to the bathroom moments later to rinse her mouth out, many viewers will be feeling the urge to flee the cinema in a similar fashion; but to leave now would be a big mistake.

This opening sequence might give the impression that
Sleeping Dogs Lie is a sub-Farrelly Brothers gross-out comedy which threatens to take the genre to new depths, but it gradually grows into something much more valuable than that. As well as being very funny, Sleeping Dogs Lie is a surprisingly thoughtful and heartfelt examination of honesty and relationships, and while it can’t quite sustain itself for the entire running time, it certainly does enough to stand out from the standard American rom-coms.

Amy’s major dilemma occurs a few years after her canine experience, when she’s in the middle of a very happy relationship with John (Bryce Johnson), and thoughts of marriage are on the horizon. There is a problem, however, with John’s insistence that he and Amy should know every last detail about each other if they are to be a truly happy couple. He tells her embarrassing incidents from his past which he has never shared with anyone, but she is understandably reluctant to divulge her own misdemeanours; and her reticence only piques John’s curiosity, causing him to press her for details of the skeleton in her closet. She seeks counsel with her friends and family (none of whom know the true nature of her secret) and they all agree that complete openness and honesty is the only way for a successful relationship to flourish.

Amy makes her decision, and it proves to be one which will blow her hitherto contented life to smithereens. Her fiancé is repulsed, her family is ashamed and her life is in tatters; and the film loses a little of its edge once the “will she/won’t she” tension has been completely exhausted, but the hour leading up to the revelation is often excellent.
Sleeping Dogs Lie has been written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, the anarchic, shrill-voiced comedian best known for his part as Officer Zed in the Police Academy series, and his screenplay here is notable for its subtlety and perception. Once the early blow-job has been accounted for, Goldthwait gives us a believable central relationship which is rooted in an everyday ordinariness and he creates a sense of awkwardness and fear for his central protagonist which is very real.

That awkwardness and fear is never more evident than during the trip to Amy’s parents which provides the both the film’s comedic high-points and the stage for the dramatic announcement. Amy’s straight-laced mother and father are played to perfection by Bonita Friedericy and Geoff Pierson and these scenes are reminiscent of
Meet the Parents, but they’re funnier, in a more down-to-earth way, and laced with an extra layer of embarrassment. Jack Plotnick (who has a hint of Bobcat about his performance) adds a considerable amount of energy to the film as Amy’s drug-addled waster of a brother, and Brian Posehn’s turn as his dopey friend is good value too.

Unfortunately all of this occurs in the film’s first hour and when Goldthwait attempts to deal with the ramifications of Amy’s disclosure he stumbles a little. After handling the build-up to the revelation with such flair, Goldthwait allows the climactic third to drift out of his grasp, and he retreats into a series of unimaginative sitcom-style situations which lack the spark evident in the film’s earlier scenes. The various ups and downs of Amy’s relationship with John - and latterly, her burgeoning affair with co-worker Ed (Colby French) - aren’t particularly interesting and the laughs become thinner as the film progresses.

Thankfully, this slightly uneven picture does have one chief asset which helps to paper over the cracks - a delightful central performance from Melinda Page Hamilton. As her life unravels over the course of this story, Amy goes through a full range of emotions and Hamilton is never less than completely engaging. She comes across as a prettier, more charming and less annoying version of Renée Zellwegger, and her fragile, endearing turn here lends the film more emotional depth than you might expect.
Sleeping Dogs Lie is Goldthwait’s first film as a director since 1992’s Shakes the Clown (championed by Martin Scorsese and REM, no less) and while his directorial style is a little bland and flat, he wisely gives the talented ensemble enough room to carry the picture. His screenplay is witty and insightful, and it’s impressive for the way he ties this perverse subject into a fairly conventional romantic comedy structure.

In fact, that’s one of the chief pleasures
Sleeping Dogs Lie offers - it’s a romantic comedy with a little bite. This style of film has become a creative wasteland in recent years, offering predictable, unimaginative stories which follow the genre’s rules to the letter, and which are often lacking in both romance and comedy; so the subversive Sleeping Dogs Lie is a welcome breath of fresh air. Who ever thought we’d see the day when a romantic comedy is based on bestiality? God only knows which taboo will fall next.

Read my interview with Bobcat Goldthwait here.