"Year of the Dog", written and directed by Mike White ("Chuck and Buck", "School of Rock") and starring Molly Shannon (most well-known for her work on "Saturday Night Live"), is a low key comedy that starts off in a promising fashion but ultimately becomes tiresome.
Peggy (Molly Shannon) is a single office worker living in her large house in the San Fernando Valley with her small dog, Pencil. Peggy idolizes her beagle, spending as much time as possible with him, enjoying every activity he partakes in, eating with him, sleeping with him. Peggy also enjoys bringing baked goods to the office (doughnuts, muffins, etc.), and stands sentinel as her office workers enjoy the treats and thank her for the goodies. One evening, Pencil wants to go out in the middle of the night, so Peggy opens the door and goes back to sleep. The next morning, Pencil hasn't returned. As she investigates, she hears him barking from the neighbors and knocks on Al's (John C. Reilly) door. They find Pencil in his backyard, sick. Peggy rushes him to the vet, but it is too late. Upset, she returns to work but can't concentrate. Her friend, Layla (Regina King), thinks this will finally help Peggy find a man, the dog was a distraction in her life. Her brother, Pier (Josh Pais) and sister-in-law, Bret (Laura Dern), don't offer any help because they won't discuss d-e-a-t-h in front of their young daughter. One day, Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), a worker at the vet's office, calls Peggy and asks her to adopt a German Shepherd who just arrived and will probably be put down. Peggy gladly takes the dog and asks Newt to help her train him. As they work together, Peggy becomes attracted to Newt. But will he return her affections?
"Year of the Dog" begins in a promising fashion. Director White and Shannon have created a very real portrait of a lonely woman who lives through the one being who returns her affection, her dog. There is a lot of richly observed comedy as we watch Peggy go through the motions of her life. She stands in the kitchen, eating her frozen dinner as she watches Pencil eat his dinner. She smiles and laughs as Pencil enjoys his time romping around at the dog park. She sends out Christmas cards featuring a picture of her and her dog wearing Santa caps. At work, she tries to offer encouragement to her boss, she seems to derive pleasure from the minimal, grudging attention she receives from her co-workers when she brings doughnuts (they're barely able to say 'thank you'), and she is shocked, but hooked, on her conversations with Layla about her friend's love life.
Shannon does a great job of giving Peggy nuance that you might not find in a normal, run of the mill comedy. When she visits her brother and stepsister, she watches impassively as the married couple explains their philosophies of child rearing and discusses the treatment of their nanny. She is nervous, in an understated way, when she goes on a date with Al and then on another date with Newt. This all works very well.
The supporting cast is also very good. John C. Reilly makes a memorable appearance as Al, the neighbor who tries to commiserate with Peggy. An awkward lummox, Al's attempts to offer sympathy are laughingly misguided. Peter Sarsgaard is also good as Newt, the trisexual who enters Peggy's live; he loves men, he loves women, he loves dogs. Laura Dern is great as the waspy Bret, who believes she is the perfect mother; notes line almost every surface, reminders of policies, allergies, do's and don'ts.
A good indication of how low key this film will be can be found in two of the character's names… Peggy's last name is Spade and Newt's first name is, well… Newt. If you haven't already figured it out, these two pet lovers are named after what all pet lovers, including Bob Barker, feel you should do to your pets. Have them spade or neutered. It is an eccentric touch giving us an indication of how offbeat the filmmakers want "Year of the Dog" to be.
After the film gets going, and Peggy meets Newt, she begins to want to impress him. He is a vegan, so she becomes a vegan and starts espousing the ideals of that lifestyle. Then, she tries to help Newt find places for all of the animals that need homes. Then, she begins to find out about refuges; farms and other habitats that take in animals and help them live a more natural life. This is all interesting for her character, but it becomes a bit preachy. As she learns new things and becomes invested in them, director White seems to want to educate the audience as well. This wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but the education is not subtle. Also, given the audience for this film, I suspect most of the people who will attend a screening of "Year" are at least familiar with these ideas. It becomes a bit like preaching to the choir. It also becomes tedious and brings the story, the humor and the characters to a grinding halt.
It is nice to see Molly Shannon in a leading role, something that shows off her gifts as a comedian and an actress. Her previous film work has been very broad and only highlighted the same comedy she is already known for from her years on "Saturday Night Live". Here, she is playing what could conceivably be a real person, just a bit funnier. It is a nice performance that will hopefully lead to many more.
This is director White's first film; his previous credits have been as a writer. He shows some promise; he is able to plumb the little moments in a normal person's life for humor, but this film is not a great effort. It is ultimately too slow, too meandering and too preachy for its own good.