Year of the Dog: Mike White’s Directing Debut, Starring Molly Shannon

Sundance Film Festival 2007 (World Premiere)–Mike White, better known as the writer of iconic indie comedies (“Chuck and Buck,” “The Good Girl,” “School of Rock”), makes a so-so feature directorial debut with “Year of the Dog.”

New comedy was greeted with mixed response by film critics at its world premiere at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Admittedly, this eccentric, character-driven comedy is not a critics’ picture–it’s a crowd pleaser.

Sharply uneven in writing, direction, and execution, the film begins well, but then after the initial reel, it loses its narrative drive and gets weaker and fluffier as it goes along. At the risk of sounding cynical, I’d suggest that there is an inverse correlation between the film’s quality and the number of dogs adopted by the protagonist, Peggy (Molly Shannon). If memory serves, in the last reel, Molly is surrounded by no less than 15 dogs. She lets them go wild, engage in a chaotic orgy (so to speak), running around, jumping up and down of her bed, tearing up every piece of furniture. It’s at this point, that the movie’s comic energy dissipates.

The best thing to be said about “Year of the Dog” is that, contrary to the Hollywood dictum, “Beware of children and animals,” in this picture, the talented Molly Shannon has nothing to fear. As cute, responsive, and reliable the dogs are, they don’t compete for our attention with Shannon, who holds the entire movie on her solid shoulders. This may derive from the fact that the role was specifically written for her by Mike White. Unfortunately, White has written an incoherent part for Shannon, turning her–and the whole movie–into a mushy muddle.

When the story begins, Peggy seems to have found a comfortable niche in which to live. She has a solid administrative job, close family, and the dependable companionship of her dog, Pencil. Peggy and Pencil are inseparable companions. They sleep together; eat together; and even take-in Friday night movies together. Life is uncomplicated and safe, and although Pencil is a Beagle, Peggy is happily entrenched in a satisfying relationship of co-dependency with her beloved pet.

But with love comes loss, and the seemingly stable status quo is rocked, when Pencils sudden death leaves Peggy reeling in a world devoid of meaning without him. Indeed, Peggys world comes crashing down, when Pencil meets a mysterious demise in the yard of her neighbor Al (John C. Riley), a bizarre man, whose hobbies and mementos (collection of sharp knives, stuffed animals) we get to know when the couple begin to date.

Al proves to be a disappointing beau, and, left to pick-up the pieces of her shattered life, Peggy embarks on a personal journey to fill the void. In the process, she acts as a private eye, snooping around Al’s garage, suspecting that Pencil might have died from toxic poisoning.

Peggy’s quest for happiness leads her to the attractive, yet sexually ambiguous (gay) Newt (Peter Saarsgard, in another disarming turn). Representing the new “New Age,” Newt (notice his name) introduces her to a “healthier” life, one that’s based on animal activism, a vegan lifestyle, and a new dog.

Inspired by Newt, Peggy unleashes an obsession with animal rights and dog placement. This greatly concerns her brother (Thomas McCarthy), sister-in-law (Laura Dern), best friend (Regina King), and boss (Josh Pais), all feeling that her life is dangerously out of balance. But are they in a position to judge

Unable to overcome continuing disappointment with her fellow human beings, Peggy ultimately makes a heartfelt commitment to the animal world, where for her, love is unconditional and satisfaction is always guaranteed. In the end, she emerges from her loss with a newfound sense of her place in the world, and what it takes to make her really happy.

Like all of White’s pictures, “Year of the Dog” is about arrested development and obsessive thinking and conduct. His offbeat characters go to an extreme, against society’s mores and norms, to achieve happiness and self-fulfillment, while also promoting a noble social cause.

Take, for example, Robin, Peggys boss, who initially is obsessed with material success, or her brother and sister-in-law, who are consumed with their children. Then there’s Layla (an energetic and sexier than the usual Regina King), Peggys office worker and best friend, who only can think about the joys of getting married, not realizing that her beau is fooling on the side. In a funny bit, Peggy manipulates Layla’s beau to adopt a dog.

To White’s credit, he doesn’t “humanize” or “mythologize” the dogsand doesn’t let them talk (which is a relief). Instead, he appears to believeand illustrate–that pets (of any kind) can serve as a legitimate source of comfort, companionship, and happiness. In “Year of the Dog,” Peggy becomes so obsessed with her dogs that she gives up on romancing men, or on any meaningful friendship with women. Whether you buy this “philosophy of happiness,” would depend on your subjective lifestyle and value system.

“Year of the Dog” benefits from the colorful secondary cast that White has assembled to support Shannon: John C. Reilly, Regina King, Laura Dern and Peter Saarsgard. Each of these gifted thespians has a number of scenes that enliven the proceedings, bringing its heroineand the film’s messageto a sharper focus.

I particularly enjoyed the scenes with the brilliant Laura Dern, who again demonstrates (as if she needed) that her range is limitless. This season alone, Dern can be seen in two utterly different performances: in this comedy, given some of the sharpest one-liners as an obsessive yuppie mom, as well as in David Lynch’s darkly humorous “Inland Empire,” in which she is nothing short of mesmerizing in an extremely tough role.

Ultimately, though, “Year of the Dog” is just a cute and cutsy picture about dogs, and perhaps the festival’s programmers are right in suggesting that people with dogs (and other pets) would admire the movie. As for me, I’d rather revisit Christopher Guest’s satirical masterpiece, “Best in Show.”

Cast:

Peggy (MOLLY SHANNON)
Bret (LAURA DERN)
Layla (REGINA KING)
Pier (TOM McCARTHY)
Robin (JOSH PAIS)
Al (JOHN C. REILLY)
Newt (PETER SARSGAARD)

Credits

Director-writer: MIKE WHITE
Executive Producer: NAN MORALES, BRAD PITT
Director of Photography: TIM ORR
Production Designer: DANIEL BRADFORD
Film Editor: DODY DORN
Production Designer: NANCY STEINER
Music: CHRISTOPHE BECK
Art Director: MACIE VENER