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Dog Fancy

Bobcat Goldthwait makes a sweet movie out of a sick joke

When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Bobcat Goldthwait's Stay, now rebranded as Sleeping Dogs Lie for some inexplicable reason, was the talk of Park City, Utah, before anyone had even seen the movie. Based on pre-screening buzz, most folks figured the movie -- shot on digital video, though it hardly even looks that expensive -- for some kind of bad, sick joke, nothing short of a stunt pulled by the same shrill comedian whose one-note directorial debut in 1992 told of a kiddie-entertaining clown who spent most of his time drunk or hungover.

Why? Well, it had something to do with the film's premise, which there is no point in keeping secret since it's revealed in the very first 12 words on the soundtrack: "My name is Amy, and, yes, at college I blew my dog." This sentence is spoken in voice-over by actress Melinda Page Hamilton, who's seen spitting dog semen into the sink before furiously gargling with mouthwash. Yeah, it's the movie about the girl who sucked off her pet pup. Maybe you've seen the ads in Dog Fancy. No. My bad.

But a funny thing happened to the former Stay: Not only was it rapturously received, but it was picked up for distribution by art-housing developer Samuel Goldwyn, which last year brought us Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, which was just as disturbing in its own special way. (Sammy G must have something for movies about the myriad uses for jizz.) Goldthwait's film, which he wrote and directed, proved to be substantially more than a punch line in search of a joke -- much more, blessedly so. In fact, it's almost determinedly conventional and unabashedly sentimental, the result of its pushing past its opening moments in order to deal with the larger dilemma of: Just how much truth should you share with the people you love? (The answer, incidentally? Not so much.)

Just how much should Amy (Melinda Page Hamilton) tell John (Bryce Johnson)?
Courtesy of IDP Distribution
Just how much should Amy (Melinda Page Hamilton) tell John (Bryce Johnson)?

Goldthwait shares the revelation up-front because he wants the audience to live with the consequences of Amy's willy-dallying -- to consider it, to accept it and move on to the rest of the movie in which the event hovers over everything like a giant black Lab...pardon, giant black cloud. At first, Amy, seen in zit cream and puffy-cloud pajamas, is sickened with herself but also a little tickled; if nothing else, she figures, it'd be one hell of an ice-breaker at a cocktail party. So she moves on, till it's several years later and she's spilled the beans to no one -- not her parents, not her boyfriends, not a soul. She wants to -- the guilt is overwhelming, the accountable frown that seems to lurk just beneath every one of Hamilton's cover-girl grins -- but can't. Until...

Amy, a teacher of little kids, finally gets involved with a man she wants to marry, someone with whom she wants to be totally honest, but she can never bring herself to tell John (Bryce Johnson, who looks disturbingly like Justin Timberlake) what she's done. What Amy doesn't realize is that everyone she knows harbors their own dark secrets: her mother (The Nine's Bonita Friedericy), heretofore believed to be the last of the original virgins; her out-of-work slacker brother (Jack Plotnick), who huffs crystal meth under his folks' roof; her father (24's Geoff Pierson), who hides his true self beneath an upright, uptight facade; Amy's fellow teacher Ed (Colby French), who has a penchant for porn; and even John, who proves himself the ultimate hypocrite by film's end.

Sooner or later, though, she outs herself, and again, that's no spoiler, because Goldthwait wants us to see what happens once the elephant in the room is unleashed to wreck the furniture and smash the crystal. Will John accept the truth about his fiancée, about whom he insists he loves "all the things that make you you" before the big reveal, or will he abandon her like some, well, dog for which he no longer wants to care? And what of Amy's parents, who consider her their "Diamond Girl" because she's so "flawless"? Will they still feel that way about their kid once they find out she turned her pup into a Popsicle one night a long time ago?

Goldthwait, suddenly and surprisingly a player, makes this thing work, when you're just sureit couldn't, because the Incident could be just about anything humiliating and "disgusting" you want to keep secret. And he handles it beautifully, crafting from such rough stuff something astoundingly sweet and sharply funny about forgiveness, unconditional love, tenderness and, most of all, the things we hide just to get ourselves from one day to the next. And he gets wonderfully natural and intimate performances from his entire cast, most of whom have spent their careers working in television. What could have turned your stomach instead kind of breaks your heart.

 
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