Written by Caballero Oscuro
Multi-hyphenate creator Mike White adds director to his growing list of titles with Year of the Dog. While he’s most famous for penning the mainstream hit School of Rock, as well as smaller films with somewhat broad appeal such as Nacho Libre, The Good Girl, and Orange County, his new film hews closest to the spirit of his odd, disturbing independent title, Chuck & Buck. In the similar vein of Happiness and Me and You and Everyone We Know, these films dig beneath the shiny façade of suburbia to expose its freaky residents struggling to make personal connections in an increasingly impersonal world.
While Year of the Dog is strangely billed as a comedy, it’s far more unnerving than amusing. SNL alum Molly Shannon stars as Peggy, a mousy administrative assistant who has never found a real romantic connection with anyone, instead keeping to herself and relying on the faithful companionship of her dog, Pencil. When Pencil disappears one night and meets a tragic end at her neighbor’s (John C. Reilly) home, Peggy’s life is thrown into disarray, leading her into a new platonic relationship with fellow dog-lover Newt (Peter Sarsgaard). His strong influence on her causes her to become a strict vegan and animal rights activist, forcing her out of her comfort zone as she constantly campaigns for her new causes to friends, family, and strangers. It’s clear that she’s replacing her grief with this newfound sense of purpose, but there’s no foreseeing how far over the line of civility and common sense she will eventually travel. Like Chuck & Buck, this film takes its premise to a much darker place than expected, with mixed results.
Peggy’s constant grandstanding for her new ideals starts to feel far too preachy, with White’s own convictions distracting from his narrative flow. It’s not enough for White to just mention animal cruelty in the meat-processing industry, he has to threaten a visit to an abusive chicken ranch as well as show an idyllic rescue farm for escapees from the corporate food mill. It’s not enough for Peggy to just adopt one replacement dog at the pound when she can come unglued instead and take on its entire death row population. White seems poised at any time to turn the production into a full-blown vegan/animal rights documentary, marring what is at its core a simple tale of a quiet woman trying to find peace and her place in the world.
To the film’s credit, Molly Shannon contributes a fine performance as the confused, lonely Peggy. The role is a long way from her manic Superstar past and she shows great range and convincing emotion throughout. She’s not exactly a revelation, but she’s really the only reason to watch this film and she makes the most of her shot at dramatic legitimacy. The rest of the cast chips in capable performance in their limited turns, but only John C. Reilly has anything approaching a memorable supporting role.