Year Of The Dog

Year Of The Dog


Reviewed by: The Exile

Screenwriter Mike White is a nerd who, like Napoleon Dynamite’s Jared Hess, writes with squirming empathy for, and about, other nerds. Whether scripting Jack Black’s characters in School Of Rock and Nacho Libre, or his own alter ego in Chuck & Buck, White pushes the geek envelope to sometimes nauseating effect, creating humor that’s never far from pathos. Year of the Dog is White’s first foray into directing, and it’s a surprisingly assured one; though infused with his trademark sad-sack sensibility, the movie’s sweetness never crosses over into Chuck & Buck weirdness or Nacho Libre lunacy. This time, White - perhaps tamed by the studio system or in awe of his female lead - controls his sicker impulses to deliver a poignant, offbeat fairytale.

One of the rare chick flicks that doesn’t appear to hate women, Year Of The Dog contains its essentially sappy narrative within a membrane of stabbing humor and ingenious reaction shots. At the center of the story - and of almost every frame - is nice-girl Peggy (Saturday Night Live’s Molly Shannon), a fortysomething administrative assistant with a bony physique and a smile that flashes in response to every emotional trigger. Peggy’s cubicle days are spent clipping Cathy cartoons, listening to the marital dreams of Layla (a marvelous Regina King) and feeding donuts to the rest of her coworkers; but at night she goes home to the wagging tail of Pencil, her little beagle, who sits on her lap and warms her in bed. On weekends they head for the dog park, where Peggy watches like a fond parent as Pencil sniffs and scampers.

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Then Pencil dies, tearing a void in Peggy’s life that immediately begins to fill with madness. Suddenly, as though smelling her despair, men creep towards her, taking advantage of her vulnerability to push their own agendas.

Her uptight boss (a sublime Josh Pais), begins sharing his professional insecurities along with the dictation. Then the good-ol’-boy next door (John C Reilly) takes her to dinner and shows her his extensive collection of hunting knives. (By the time he becomes moist-eyed over a long-dead hunting dog, Peggy is beginning to suspect him of more than lewd intentions.) Most promising of an unappetizing bunch is a pasty-faced dog lover named Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), who wants Peggy to adopt a skittish, abused shelter dog. Unfazed by his odd name and even odder behavior, Peggy becomes unwisely attached to this asexual weirdo (an animal-loving Sarsgaard would make any PETA member nervous) and even joins him in becoming vegan. “It’s nice to have a word that describes you,” she says by way of explaining her conversion.

An undeniably slight film wavering between contempt and compassion, Year Of The Dog owes a great deal to Shannon’s pitch-perfect performance. It’s easy to play a caricature - as Laura Dern proves in the role of Bret, Peggy’s child-obsessed sister-in-law - but it’s much tougher to be a likable dork who makes everyone around her a little uncomfortable. In the break room at work, White positions her away from her colleagues, smiling eagerly on the fringes of a discussion; in her boss’s office, she stands silently near the door while he halfheartedly berates her for forging company checks to canine charities. At all times there’s a distance that others—including the audience—have to cross to reach her.

A lover of outsiders, White directs like a sleepy Wes Anderson or Alexander Payne, locating his heroine in a featureless universe of overprotective parents, insecure bosses, desperate women and animal-rights eunuchs. Whatever his tone - cruel or kind, scornful or sympathetic - he holds his camera up close and personal, ruthlessly magnifying human weakness and transporting mild personality quirks into the realm of the grotesque. Year Of The Dog’s message may be sentimental but it’s also unexpectedly tart, suggesting that those who substitute puppy love for the human variety need to get out of the pound and into a life.

Reviewed on: 15 Jul 2007
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Offbeat fairytale about a woman who tries to fill a void in her life after her dog dies.
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Director: Mike White

Writer: Mike White

Starring: Molly Shannon, Laura Dern, Peter Sarsgaard, John C Reilly, Regina King, Thomas McCarthy, Josh Pais, Amy Schlagel, Zoe Schlagel, Dale Godboldo, Inara George

Year: 2007

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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