Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Film review: Sleeping Dogs Lie

By Will Parkhouse

Originally published in Total Spec magazine, January 2007

Got a secret? Amy has – and hers is better than yours. It's revealed to the audience in the first few seconds of Sleeping Dogs Lie and there can’t be many more startling opening lines in the annals of film history than, “My name is Amy and yes, at college I blew my dog.” The Farrelly brothers must be seething.

Except this isn't quite the gross-out farce you might expect from such a revelation. Written and directed by the wonderfully-named Bobcat Goldthwait, who, oddly enough, played Zed in the Police Academy films, Sleeping Dogs Lie is a low-budget indie romcom, where the rom is sweet and sad, and the com is shot through with twisted absurdity.

Primary school teacher Amy (Melinda Page Hamilton) and her aspiring journalist boyfriend John (Bryce Johnson) are getting married. Head over heels in love, they promise to be completely honest with each other, but Amy soon becomes dogged (sorry) by her secret, not helped by the constant presence of John’s canine friend Steve. She discusses the gist of the problem with friendly co-worker Ed. Should she tell her future husband the dark secret?

A stay at the home of Amy’s well-to-do parents bring things to a head (ahem). John finds himself having to share a room with his fiancee’s jobless brother, who now spends his time smoking crystal meth and playing with his beloved Casio keyboard (“there’s no limit to what this does,” he waxes). A memorable ensemble set piece which sees all four actors having a whale of a time has John asking Amy's father for his blessing to marry, while Amy has a tentative heart-to-heart with her mother about sexual secrets. As a result of the chat, a glorious scene between Amy and John follows that skilfully takes us from laughter to suspense to horror to sadness in the space of a few minutes. The truth comes out and Amy's life starts to change.

Despite the taboo-busting nature of that secret, this is some way from being There’s Something About Amy. Rarely off camera, Page Hamilton puts in a great performance, and even though she's done the (nearly) unspeakable, we’re always on her side, something that’s in no way hindered by her endearing Renee Zellweger-alike looks. The film's charm is in no small way due to her.

But we're offered more than just cutesy chucks on the chin; there are emotional punches here that put Sleeping Dogs Lie miles from the tear-jerk manipulation of more mainstream bad-taste flicks. In fact, Goldthwait almost plays it for laughs too often; when the secret is unleashed for a second time at the family dinner table accompanied by comedy French accordion, we find ourselves wanting to watch in horror rather than be pushed to snigger at the slapstick. It also feels a bit rushed in places – filmed as it was in an unbelievable two weeks, at times you can almost sense the crew packing up to move location before the camera's stopped, so abruptly do some of the scenes finish. But such signs of inexperience aren't frequent enough to mar the genuinely funny moments, the rapport we feel with the characters or the bombshells of weirdness Goldthwait's script frequently drops.

While the moral we're fed is rather simple – that some secrets should stay that way – there's enough food for thought to be going on with here beneath the Meet the Parents-like belly laughs. And the clever title works on several levels; this isn't just about keeping secrets in the past, it's about lies too, and, of course, sleeping with dogs. Definitely worth a go. The film, that is.

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