Discretion Advised
by Tom J. Carlisle

Sleeping Dogs Lie
Dir. Bobcat Goldthwait, U.S., Roadside Attractions

That there is more emotional honesty about relationships in Sleeping Dogs Lie, a film that features a canine blowjob as its central plot point, than in any other American romantic comedy of recent memory is a sad state of affairs. Sadder still is that the premise is probably too icky by a wide shot for the people who would most respond to the movie. And it’s likely the audience who does go to Sleeping Dogs Lie will expect a gross-out in the Farrelly Brothers vein, only to be sorely disappointed by what’s essentially an oddly straightforward romantic comedy.

Sleeping Dogs Lie may have been directed by bizarro Eighties comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, but it is less about funny voices than the small human damage inflicted by actions and words we wish we could take back. And, yes, the film hinges upon what happens after a girl gives her dog head, but that carnal act is dispensed of quickly and relatively tastefully in the first few minutes of the film. What follows is a pleasantly low-key, almost naturalistic comedy seemingly designed to thwart expectations. When Amy (Melinda Page Hamilton), spices up a bedroom confession with a made-up sexual liaison with her close female friend in order to avoid telling her fiancé of her canine indiscretion, she believes (correctly) that it will turn him on instead of freak him out. When John, the fiancé, talks about jacking off for the first time, he is as giggly as a schoolboy. They are both as bourgeois and vanilla as can be, and their sexual frankness is both uncomfortable and oddly endearing.

Refreshingly, Sleeping Dogs Lie is not about kinky freaks who must learn to love themselves. Instead, Amy and John are incredibly average young people (he wants to be a writer, she’s a kindergarten teacher), one of whom did something that even the most kinkiest among us might find disconcerting, did not get off on it, and now believes it to be dishonest to not reveal it to her man. That she feels this need in the first place can be read as an indictment of our tell-all culture, where honesty has become confused with shameless exhibitionism. While we should accept each other for who we are—so goes the refrain—sometimes, in some things, maybe it’s better not to reveal all. It’s tricky territory, and in Goldthwait’s film there is much pleasure to be found watching the protagonists squirm and contort around the slippery poles of what they want to say, what they want to do, what they have done, and, most importantly, what they think the other person wants them to say or do.

Goldthwait lingers on moments of John and Amy behaving like a recognizable couple rather than as one-note devices to advance the plot, and the camerawork is unobtrusive, yet carefully crafted, a cut above the typical point and shoot style most comedies employ. When Sleeping Dogs Lie focuses on the repercussions of Amy’s revelation, it is incisive, poignant, and funny, despite the occasional throwaway line or uneven bit of acting (the script is not immune to sporadic flashes of sitcom laziness.)

Unfortunately, Sleeping Dogs Lie doesn’t sustain its momentum, seeming overlong at even a mere 89 minutes. Perhaps in an effort to be taken more seriously, Goldthwait tries to mix keen observational comedy with heartbreaking family melodrama, which results in a somewhat unholy alchemy. The rupture starts to show itself when the couple visits Amy’s parents. At first the scenario is played for laughs, the biggest coming courtesy of the meth-head brother who still lives at home and is rather fond of his vocoder synthesizer. But when the brother hustles from the dinner table to go freebase, we get the first “uh-oh” moment: a close-up heavy, quick-cut montage of the lighter, the pipe and his haggard face, straight out of a cautionary tale of drug abuse. Later on, as secrets are revealed, there is plenty of hysterical crying and shouting. And in the final half hour, an ill-advised tragedy all but derails the picture, replete with figures staring meaningfully into space.

Despite these missteps, Sleeping Dogs Lie does have something to say about the inner workings of relationships, about the fine line between complete honesty and pointless sabotage, and about how brief moments in our sexual history can haunt us for a long time afterwards. That it has anything to say at all beyond the specious claim that “there’s somebody for everybody” makes it a bit of a miracle in the tired romantic comedy genre. Any film that begins with bestiality and manages to be reasonably heartfelt is well deserving of praise.