Year of the Dog (2007) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some suggestive references and language
Running time: 97 min.

Cast: Molly Shannon, Regina King, Peter Sarsgaard, Laura Dern, Josh Pais, Thomas McCarthy, Dale Godboldo, Amy Schliegel, Zoe Schliegel
Director: Mike White
Screenplay: Mike White
Review published May 12, 2007

Peggy (Shannon, Marie Antoinette) is a 40+ office assistant who has no man, and not much of a life.  All she has to look forward to is the friends she has made in her office, and Pencil, her loveable beagle.  Unfortunately for Peggy, one of those is lost, when Pencil goes into his neighbor's yard and ingests toxic substances that eventually take his life. 

An employee of the veterinarian's office she takes Pencil to sees that she is an animal lover and offers her the chance to fill that void in her life again by adopting Valentine, an abused and emotionally unstable animal he has saved from being put down to sleep.  All is mostly right in the world again, as Peggy has been taken out by her neighbor, Al (Reilly, Talladega Nights), as well as Newt (Sarsgaard, Jarhead), who has begun to train Valentine for his behavioral issues.  However, the real void in her life -- finding a man and starting a family -- seems to continue to elude her. 

Screenwriter Mike White (Nacho Libre, The School or Rock) takes his first stab at directing with Year of the Dog with a good sense of humor, characters, and original developments, and ironically fares better in his direction and casting decisions than he does in his screenplay.  It's the kind of film that one can love, others can hate, but all can agree is original, perhaps to a fault.  In essence, White's story is one of self-discovery for a woman stuck in a rut as she begins to approach middle age.  A transformation takes place in her life, as pieces begin to fall into place, and she discovers that there is a niche for her in life that she finds fulfillment in, although it appears to be at constant odds with her current state of existence.

Through the course of her personal journey, Peggy discovers a world of pet adoption, veganism, and the animal rights movement, but she is surrounded by people who don't hear the same call to duty that she does.  Her neighbor Al regularly hunts animals for fun, her sister-in-law Bret (Dern, Lonely Hearts) wears animal furs and the like, and her boss (Pais, Little Manhattan) doesn't even want Peggy discussing her passions for animal rights at the office, even on her breaks. 

For most of the way, White's story is amiable, full of nice surprises, some choice bits of humor, and even a touching moment or two.  Molly Shannon delivers her finest performance to date as an actress, not confined to a shallow comedic character trying to steal laughs through her manic energy.  The supporting cast is solid and the score by Christophe Beck (We Are Marshall, School for Scoundrels) in perfect harmony with the kind of quirky story this is. 

It's such an entertaining film that it's a shame that White's very honest characterization of Peggy goes a step too far by having her do some very silly things that undermine her authenticity as a character.  For example, while tending Bret's children, Peggy pulls down all of the furs that she finds in Bret's closet, and of all of the places to put them, they end up in the bathtub where, you guessed it, calamity results (She seems surprised; Why would you take someone's furs off of hangers and lay them all in a tub if you had no intention of destroying them?).  There is another scene where Peggy is moved by the plights of animals at the local shelter about to be euthanized, and she ends up trying to adopt as many as possible to save them from their ill fates.   However, it does call into question a previous scene where it is discussed that there is only so much love and attention one can give, whether to humans or animals, and letting them run rampant in a house, sometimes unsupervised, Peggy is only keeping them alive, not really looking for new homes for them and also not able to love and give them the attention they deserve.

In the end, the seemingly-random film begins to congeal into something more solid thematically, and while the sublimation of feelings of loneliness into a channel of empowerment does make for a resonant way to end the film, by the time it happens, it's difficult to see Peggy as a person we can identify with any longer.  White's plot has her jumping through so many contrived hoops, ostensibly for laughs or to show her grief, that she is merely a tool designed to provide a means to an end that can only truly be poignant if we believe that she is a person, just like us, doing things we would do in her situation if we could.  

Unfortunately, many of the things she does only paints her as an emotionally and mentally unstable woman, who would do criminal and somewhat immoral acts out of impulsive feelings she no longer seems to be able to control.  Those who view animal rights activists as wacko extremists will probably think their suspicions confirmed by showing the one we follow to be barely holding her sanity together.

Despite its formidable flaws in terms of the characterizations after Peggy's probable mental breakdown, The Year of the Dog remains an interesting, lively, and unique film that should please the indie film crowd, and admirers of Molly Shannon's comedic work.  Animal lovers will probably also find plenty to identify with, in this tale of people who find more kinship and empathy for their four-legged friends than with the uncaring, self-absorbed, two-legged ones they must deal with on a daily basis.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo