YEAR OF THE DOG

PG_13, 97 min, 2007

Director: Mike White
Writer: Mike White
Stars: Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard

Mike White’s Year of the Dog is a sunny-looking dark comedy, hiding a sardonic core just underneath a basically bright, cheerful and delightful surface.

Molly Shannon (of Saturday Night Live) stars as Peggy, a somewhat introverted, vaguely shy secretary who is deeply in love with her pet beagle, Pencil. Try as she might, Peggy just isn’t a people person: she makes her nice boss Robin (Josh Pais) uncomfortable, she tries awkwardly to make conversation with and offer food to her co-workers, yet only seems to have one friend at the office, her good friend Layla (Regina King), who is in a long-standing and increasingly negative relationship with the womanizing Don (Dale Godboldo).

Peggy has a brother, Pier (Thomas McCarthy), who is ecstatically (if inexplicably so) married to the almost Stepford ideal of a wife, Bret (Laura Dern). Pier and Bret live in a sunny, cheerful suburban world where their infant is the light of their life and their young daughter is not allowed to be exposed to anything even remotely negative or “rough” – including the “dark subject matter” of such family fare as “Babe,” and we’re thinking, What cereal commercial did you guys walk out of?

Peggy lives next door to Al (John C. Reilly), a vaguely nice-seeming guy whose bushes are covered in a poisonous substance. Then, one tragic night, Peggy lets Pencil out and he seems drawn to the substance like catnip; the next day he’s dead. Peggy is devastated at first, and then meets Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), a kindly vet’s office employee who points her toward adopting a new dog named Valentine.

This sets off a chain reaction in Peggy, causing her to try hard to be a better person – she becomes a vegan (“Organic and Free Range is still murder”), she starts adopting farm animals for her family, she donates some of her boss’s money to an animal rescue organization, and she wholeheartedly devotes herself to trying to get friends and co-workers to adopt the many sheltered dogs that need a home. This kind of Good Samaritanism has a bad side, and it comes back to haunt her – viciously.

Mike White, who wrote and directed, is the famed actor-screenwriter of many odd, quirky projects, ranging fromChuck & Buck (2000), which as I recall “made me feel like bugs were crawling under my skin,” to The Good Girl(2002) with Jennifer Aniston as a Wal-Mart esque employee who begins an affair with her young co-worker (Jake Gyllenhaal). He also wrote such Jack Black vehicles as Orange County (2002), School of Rock (2003) and the deplorable Nacho Libre (2006) as well as created the short-lived primetime TV soap opera Pasadena (2001-02).

Here, in his directorial debut, White has constructed a film that Todd Solondz might be proud of – not exploring the hidden dark depravities of a seemingly “normal person,” but rather making you laugh and then feel rotten shortly there after, only to make you legitimately laugh at something “safe” minutes later.

In Peggy, White and Molly Shannon have created an odd, funny and surprisingly sympathetic woman, good-hearted, who reminds me of that William H. Macy line from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999): “I really do have lots of love to give, I just don’t know where to put it.”

By this film’s end, Peggy has more or less found where to “put” her love, and the results are sometimes funny, sometimes moving and ultimately kind of poignant.

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Filed under 2007

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