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Year of the Dog
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Not A Dog By Any Means"
4 stars

I will admit that when I went into the screening of “Year of the Dog,” it was not with the lightest of step or happiest of hearts. Although he has received much acclaim over the last few years for such works as “Chuck and Buck” and “The Good Girl,” I have never been much taken by the screenwriting talents of Mike White–his work has always stuck me as being the work of a lesser Todd Solondz that included all the casual misanthropy of Solondz without any of the bravery or nerve–and the fact that he was also making his directorial debut suggest that the grace notes that Richard Linklater and Jake Kasdan brought to White’s screenplays for “School of Rock” and “Orange County” would probably not be in abundance. Additionally, the mere presence of Molly Shannon in anything–even a short “SNL” sketch–has always tended to inspire virtually the same reaction in me that the drill in “Marathon Man” brought out of Dustin Hoffman. Therefore, I am somewhat surprised and happy to report that not only is “Year of the Dog” not the atrocity that I was expecting, it is actually a highly impressive work in which White and Shannon have joined forces to give us a darkly funny and strangely emotional meditation on grief and the extremes that people sometimes go to in order to deal with a sudden tragedy.

Shannon plays Peggy, a pleasant-but-dull woman who works as a faceless drone in an equally drab corporate park–you get the sense that she was hired primarily to make her co-workers feel better about themselves in comparison to her. That said, it is pretty obvious that Peggy doesn’t really have any use for them–she has one office friend (Regina King) and that seems more a friendship born of convenience than anything else–because the only thing that she seems to value in her life is her pet dog Pencil. To you and me, Pencil may not seem like much–from what we see of him, he is about as exciting as the office tool that inspired his name–but just from the way Peggy looks at him, we can instantly tell the bond that she has with him. One night, however, Pencil wanders into the neighbor’s yard and by the time Peggy finds him, he has gotten into something and by the time she rushes him over to the vet, the dog has succumbed to toxic poisoning.

Needless to say, Peggy is absolutely devastated and the token stabs at sympathy she receives do nothing to obliterate her hurt–Pencil was her entire world and now that world is gone forever. At a loss for what to do next, she tries to break out of her shell by going out on a date with her seemingly sweet-natured neighbor (John C. Reilly) that pretty much goes south when they go back to his place and he reveals himself to be a zealous hunting fanatic. Later on, she is contacted by Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), a worker at the animal hospital that treated Pencil. Seeing how devoted she was to her pet, Newt suggests that she might want to take in an abused dog that could use a loving home that can meet his numerous special needs. Driving out of a love for animals (and a desire for the weirdly asexual Newt), Peggy agrees and this starts her on the path of becoming devoted to the cause of animal rights. The problem is that, like so many people who blindly leap into a life-changing decision, Peggy loses all sense of proportion and becomes the kind of wild-eyed fanatic that even the good folks at PETA might find a little too zealous for their own good. It is one thing, I suppose, for her to replace the office snacks with treats devoid of animal-based ingredients or adopting chickens in the name of family members as a Christmas gift–it is quite another to fill up the house with animals and embezzle office funds to go to animal rights groups.

On the surface, my description of “Year of the Dog” may make it sound like 97 straight minutes of condescending mocking aimed at a woman struggling to cope with grief and loss in her own strange way. That is not the case her for a couple of reasons. For starters, one of the central jokes of the film is that virtually everyone in the film is just as crazily obsessed and tunnel-visioned about a particular subject as Peggy is–the comedy comes from the fact that they seem blissfully unaware of their own craziness while Peggy, although clearly nuts, is at least comfortable with who she is. For example, Peggy’s sister-in-law (Laura Dern) seems to be the perfect wife and mother on the outside but when you listen to her for more than a minute, you will quickly discover that she is the kind of smothering and controlling type who spends every waking minute calculating every real and perceived threat to her children in the world–even the gift of a “Babe” DVD sets her to fretting about the “intense” material to be found within. Also, despite the fact that this is comedy, White has provided the film with a real emotional core that keeps things from getting too ridiculous. Take the sequence early on involving the passing of Pencil. Some films might have milked it for dark comedy and I can see how such an approach might have worked. Instead, White plays it straight and without going over the top in any way, he effortlessly captures Peggy’s utter devastation in a way that will ring true for anyone who has lost a cherished pet under sudden and inexplicable circumstances.

Of course, a lot of the credit for the success of the film goes to Molly Shannon, who is something close to a revelation as Peggy. Normally one of those performers for whom over-the-top is merely a starting point, she dials it down considerably here and the result is the kind of smart and focused work that you would never expected from the same person behind the armpit-sniffing Mary-Katherine Gallagher. Yes, Peggy is an out-of-control character and we realize that but if she comes across as too nutty early on, it would short-circuit the entire film and leave with nothing but a pathetic psycho. Instead, her increasingly unhinged behavior is put across in a quietly subtle way that sneaks up in unexpected ways without seeming too silly. In one particular scene, after taking her young niece to the petting zoo where her adopted chicken resides, Peggy then insists on a field trip to the slaughterhouse to show what happens to the other chickens and she shifts from one mood to another with such casual ease that it takes your breath away. Shannon also gets a lot of strong support from the rest of the cast–Sarsgaard and Reilly are both hilarious as her two potential suitors and Laura Dern nails her quietly hateful character with the kind of obvious relish that makes every scene a keeper.

There are a few hiccups here and there that betray “Year of the Dog” as the work of a first-time director. There is a subplot involving the romantic tribulations of the Regina King character that is fairly unnecessary and the ending struck me as being a little off–it seems to be building to an inevitably dark conclusion only to back off at the last minute. (Although I have no way of knowing if this is true, I got the feeling that White wrote a much bleaker ending and then altered it in order to get the film made.) At the same time, there is so much that is right about the film that these flaws shouldn’t prevent you from seeking out this unexpectedly winning work.

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originally posted: 04/20/07 16:15:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/16/09 girl cute but sort of me 3 stars
1/13/09 Anonymous. a movie alot of animal lovers can relate to :] 4 stars
4/27/08 AnnieG Don't be fooled, this is not a comedy. Very sad tale. 2 stars
7/03/07 William Goss Although Shannon and Dern fare well, muddled dramedy is curiously unfocused. 3 stars
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  13-Apr-2007 (PG-13)
  DVD: 28-Aug-2007



[trailer] Trailer

Directed by
  Mike White

Written by
  Mike White

  Molly Shannon
  Peter Sarsgaard
  Regina King
  John C. Reilly
  Laura Dern

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