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Year of the Dog   B-

Paramount Vantage

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Mike White
Writer: Mike White
Cast: Molly Shannon, Laura Dern, Regina King, Tom McCarthy, Josh Pais, John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard.

Review by Rob Vaux

Mike White doesn't have much of a film on his hands here. It's a derivative, episodic, largely formless affair that never quite finds its rhythm. What he has is a character: a special, one-of-a-kind, heartbreakingly wonderful character of a sort we see all too few of these days. As the portrait of a single figure, Year of the Dog has few equals; it's just all that silly plot/story/cinematic technique stuff surrounding it that causes problems.

White -- a screenwriter whose interests in the quirky and different have made for some unique (if not always brilliant) movies -- hasn't quite mastered the skills necessary for direction. His efforts here smack of calculated whimsy -- the kind of egregious kookiness that Wes Anderson displays on his worst days. Neither does White establish any kind of viable structure to his work: just scene after scene shambling into each other in search of a point. The dramatic notes feel forced, deus ex machina is in abundant attendance, and the film's resolution hinges on one of the phoniest moments I've seen this year.

Yet at the center of all that stands Peggy, the sad and beautiful misfit whose onscreen realization is so pitch-perfect that none of the film's other failings besmirch her. Indeed, calling her a misfit is a bit misleading; the word implies that depressingly Hollywood cliché of mannered "outcasts," who use quasi-comic goofs to demonstrate how distinct they are from the mainstream. Peggy has none of that. She's not here for our amusement, she doesn't trumpet her outsider status, and none of her mannerisms betray the slightest hint of just how different she is. As portrayed by Molly Shannon in the kind of performance that defines careers, she is as truthful as any figure that has ever stepped onscreen. Everyone knows someone like her, but few truly understand the sort of person she is... which gives Year of the Dog the heft to rise above its otherwise considerable shortcomings.

In the simplest terms, Peggy's a sponge: a sensitive, empathetic soul whose limitless concern for others has translated into an utter lack of personal identity. She's the sort of woman who listens to other people talk about their problems for hours on end, offering unconditional support without a single thought for herself. Her family and colleagues exploit her without ever realizing it: her obtuse boss (Josh Pais) for whom she works as a secretary, her officemate and only apparent friend (Regina King) who thinks she just needs a good man, her soul-chilling brother and sister-in-law (Thomas McCarthy and Laura Dern) who live only to protect their spawn from life's harsh edges. All of them take and take and take from Peggy... and, instinctive pleaser that she is, she's only too happy to give them what they need. Aging, lonely, and thoroughly misunderstood, she simply can't conceive that life might be any different for her.

The only thing that's truly hers is an adorable little beagle named Pencil, whom she dotes upon and who alone in her world reciprocates the kind of support she so selflessly gives to others. Then one evening, Pencil gets into some gardening chemicals in the garage of Peggy's neighbor (John C. Reilly), and dies. The loss utterly shatters her, and in her efforts to pick up the pieces, she begins asserting her own needs for the very first time. She soon latches onto the animal rights movement, egged on by a friendly activist (Peter Sarsgaard) whose efforts are as well-meaning but inadvertently exploitative as everyone else's. Under his encouragement, she turns vegan, funnels company funds into pro-animal causes, and adopts a "problem" dog whose psyche may be damaged beyond repair. Her missteps are often ghastly, but nonetheless make slow, halting progress towards real self-awareness: a place where her sensitivities can be more than just a doormat for others to wipe their feet.

White charts that growth though bouts of painful humor, as Peggy's friends and family try to fathom what's come over her, and she slowly learns to differentiate what she requires from what's socially acceptable. The mixture clicks often, but not always: there are periods where Year of the Dog laughs too much at her and not enough at her mistakes. Shannon's grasp of the character never wavers, however, and White colors her with humanism and compassion devoid of undue sentimentality. Strong supporting performances help further stabilize the affair, most notably from Reilly (who rescues some of the film's most problematic moments) and Dern (who delivers the most deliciously hateful character of her type since Little Children).

Beyond them, unfortunately, the film struggles to find its focus. Whether White wanted to center our attention solely on his protagonist or not, he never properly establishes her journey in narrative terms. In may ways, Year of the Dog is just a series of loosely-connected sketches: funny at times, but also trying our patience even as it wraps us more and more tightly in Peggy's world. Were there a less compelling figure at its core, it might have been a disaster. Luckily the road to self-discovery has rarely found a better subject, granting insight into the outsider's life that no fellow square peg can dare deny. Animal rights play a huge part in the proceedings, but the film doesn't really have an agenda on that issue any more than Sideways had an agenda about winemaking. It is simply the rock to which this particular soul clings: a love that cuts deeply (like all true love) but also gives her the strength to finally know herself without asking for anyone's permission. Year of the Dog has very little else in its corner, but with a character like this, that's all it really needs.

Review published 04.13.2007.

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