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Year of the Dog

A Misfire of Minor Proportions

Mike White’s (Nacho Libre, School of Rock, Chuck and Buck) directorial debut, Year of the Dog, is a character study of a lonely woman who loses her dog, friend, confidante, and companion rolled into one, and the life-changing events and circumstances that irrevocably change her personality. Year of the Dog is also a tragicomedy, farther away from White’s broader efforts aimed at general audiences (School of Rock, Orange County) and closer to White's darker character studies of desperate, eccentric loners (The Good Girl, Chuck and Buck).

Peggy (Molly Shannon) leads a placid, routine life. Two things define her: her listening skills and her relationship with her dog, Pencil. At work, she listens respectively to her boss, Robin (Josh Pais), whine and moan about his salary. Peggy calmly listens to her best friend and co-worker, Layla (Regina King), go on and on about her floundering relationship with another co-worker, Don (Dale Godboldo); Layla wants to get married and fast, while Don doesn't seem ready. Peggy also spends time with her brother, Pier (Thomas McCarthy) and his wife, Bret (Laura Dern). Pier and Bret fret over how to raise and protect their two children, eight-year old Lissie (Amy/Zoe Schlagel) and a toddler, Benjy (Benjamin/Dominik Koesling).

Peggy’s life takes a dramatic turn when Pencil goes missing one night. She finds an unresponsive Pencil in her next-door neighbor’s backyard. Pencil dies, but Peggy seems to have gained a suitor in the neighbor, Al (John C. Reilly), a hunting enthusiast who adorns his living room with his trophies. She also seems to have gained a friend and/or potential romantic interest in the sexually ambiguous Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), a veterinary hospital employee and ASPCA volunteer. Newt convinces Peggy to adopt a new dog, Valentine, with promises of quality time spent training the formerly abused Valentine into a loving, responsive companion. Newt also shares his life choices (he’s a vegan) and his philosophy of life.

Given White’s talent for light, broad comedy or dark tragicomedy, Year of the Dog looked like a sure thing. It's not, by any means. Its central problem is easy to spot: a seemingly sympathetic character that becomes increasingly unsympathetic and unlikable as the movie wears on (and "wears on" is an apt description for Year of the Dog’s haphazard pacing). Peggy becomes obsessive, self-centered, self-righteous, pushing her animal rights activism on her co-workers and family. Whatever the "rightness" of her cause, her zealotry alienates everyone around her. Worse, Peggy's obsession leads to a point of no return when she decides to find out how and why Pencil died.

Although Peggy's character arc leads, as expected, toward a personal epiphany, she doesn’t get there convincingly. Far from it, actually. As Peggy becomes less sympathetic, Year of the Dog becomes increasingly contrived, with plot turns that strain believability and an ending that isn’t much of one. The contrived ending is meant to make us feel a little more kindly toward Peggy as she stumbles toward self-awareness. She isn't and having Peggy embrace the more idiosyncratic aspects of animal rights activism doesn't help much either.

Ultimately, we end up caring little for Peggy and the problems she faces. Animal lovers might also find Peggy substituting a relationship with a dog for physical intimacy reductive or insulting. Despite credible turns by Molly Shannon, Laura Dern, John C. Reilly, and Peter Sarsgaard, some sharp, if obvious, digs at corporate America, and off-kilter compositions (White prefers to shoot characters facing the camera to cause unease or discomfort in moviegoers), the best that can be said about Year of the Dog is that it’s occasionally compelling misfire by an obviously talented filmmaker who’s made better films and will, presumably, make better films in the future.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars