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Saturday, June 12, 2010

SLEEPING DOGS LIE -- movie review by porfle

"My name is Amy. And yes, at college...I blew my dog."
Welcome to SLEEPING DOGS LIE, aka STAY (2006), comedian "Bobcat" Goldthwait's second feature film as writer-director. (In addition to SHAKES THE CLOWN he also directed a TV-movie called WINDY CITY HEAT.) In an age when just about any comedy subject is acceptable and the limits of crudity and perverseness lie only in the screenwriter's imagination, I went into this movie expecting Wayans Brothers-style cheap laughs and a gross-out factor of ANIMAL HOUSE times ten. What I didn't expect from the Bobcat was to see a seriocomic story told with incredible finesse, with equal parts hilarity and sensitivity.

"How," you might ask, "could a movie about a girl who blows her dog have any 'serio' mixed in with the 'comic'?" Bobcat accomplishes this by keeping his characters, dialogue, and situations completely straight. There are no pratfalls, nobody does any schtick, and the script contains little or nothing that is so overtly jokey that it couldn't be said or done in real life. In fact, this story could've been slightly altered to make it a totally straightforward romantic dramedy--in other words, the standard "chick flick"--with, of course, the omission of any reference know. The characters are so beautifully deadpan (and played by a uniformly excellent cast) that when the situation suddenly veers from funny to tragic, there's no jarring transition whatsoever in their behavior or the overall tone of the story.

And yet, right in the middle of all this relative normalcy, the inescapable premise of Amy blowing her dog sits like an elephant at a tea party, which is what gives the film its ability to explore a comic territory full of sublime sublety, far from the standard, mindless frat house frolic. "It" happens right in the first scene--no THE SIXTH SENSE spoiler here--as we see typical, well-adjusted college girl Amy (familiar TV actress Melinda Page Hamilton in a very winning performance) reading a book in her dorm room one night, when suddenly, from out of nowhere, she acts upon a silly whim and administers oral sex (offscreen) to her dog. She regrets it immediately, but now that the deed is done, she is saddled with a really, really dark secret that she can never, ever tell anyone. Ever.

Of course, years later, she has a perfect relationship with a perfect boyfriend, John (Bryce Johnson), and one night after some perfect sex they start talking about how perfect it would be if they were perfectly honest with each other in every way. He sheepishly confesses to her about the first time he ever masturbated, and she tells him--that she once had lesbian sex with a friend (she didn't). He's suitably "shocked", though titillated.

They travel to her parents' house for the weekend, planning to announce their engagement. Dad (Geoff Pierson) is an intimidating, straight-arrow type who will definitely be difficult for John to impress, and Mom (Bonita Friedericy) is a loveable flake who giddily harbors a few secrets of her own. Things get off to an awkward start and for awhile it looks like Goldthwait has gone to all this trouble just to dish up a lame rehash of MEET THE PARENTS with a little canine fellatio thrown in to spice things up. But nothing of such a farcical nature occurs--no "I have nipples, Greg...can you milk me?" or hilariously destructive slapstick of any kind.

So, the dark spectre of Amy's impulsive doggy blowjob hangs heavily over this bland, suburban milieu like the sword of Damocles, just waiting to be let loose to wreak havoc. As, of course, it eventually does when Amy's ne'er-do-well, meth-frazzled brother Dougie (the ubiquitous Jack Plotnick, whom I will always remember as Slim Organbody on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien") maliciously lets the dog out of the bag at breakfast one morning ("Amy blew a dog") and Amy's life comes crashing down around her.

When her relationship with John eventually goes to the dogs (sorry), she finds comfort in the arms of her good friend Ed (Colby French), a terminally-nice fellow schoolteacher whose marriage is on the rocks. Just as they begin to grow closer, though, the most serio-serious thing in the story happens, something that threatens to steer it straight from pathos to bathos. But what it actually does is to give this film a level of emotional richness that is genuinely surprising, and beautifully handled.

When I finally stopped expecting SLEEPING DOGS LIE to be a non-stop dirty joke and figured out what gear to watch it in, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable movies I've ever seen. The closest thing I can compare it to would be something from Albert Brooks, yet here, to my great surprise, Bob Goldthwait's humor is drier, more deadpan, and invested with more heartfelt emotion than even Brooks normally displays. Much of it is even--dare I say it--"sweet." In some scenes, bursts of hilarity are so skillfully juxtaposed with drama and pain that I kept waiting for the whole thing to fall apart at any moment--but Goldthwait manages to maintain this precarious balancing act right up to the fade-out, which I found distinctly impressive. One thing's for sure, I'll never look at the Bobcat--or dogs--the same way again.

In one of my favorite moments, Amy desperately seeks forgiveness from her mother before she and John leave. But her mother turns away from her formerly-perfect daughter and says, with quiet sorrow: "This is the first time...since the day you were born...that I'm ashamed to be your mother." Amy rushes from the room and collapses against a wall as jaunty piano music fades in from the soundtrack, and at the precise instant that her face contorts into the most extreme expression of inutterable heartbreak imaginable, Louis Prima suddenly bursts forth with: "When you're smilin'! When you're smilin! The whole world smiles with you!" Perfect.


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