YEAR OF THE DOG (Mike White, 2007)
Peggy (Molly Shannon) loves, loves, loves dogs. Her adorable pup Pencil shares a cherished spot on Peggy's lap while watching TV after work, beside her in bed, and on her Christmas cards. A man is conspicuously absent in her life, but she doesn't seem to mind. People will always disappoint you, but a dog's love and loyalty are never in doubt.
In YEAR OF THE DOG Peggy must seek a new best friend when her beloved beagle eats something poisonous in her neighbor's yard and dies. Out of the sadness comes a glimmer of hope. Al (John C. Reilly), the construction worker next door, takes her to dinner to boost her spirits, but an avid hunter who proudly displays mounted trophies and a knife collection on his walls isn't the right guy for her.
Animal shelter employee Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) is more her type. He noticed how upset Peggy was when Pencil died and thinks that he has an abused and rescued dog that could use her special care as much as she needs a pet. Peggy's attraction to Newt and his love for animals is so strong that she follows his choices to be a vegan and animal rights crusader. Problem is that he has more affection for animals--no, not in that way--than he does for women or men.
YEAR OF THE DOG writer-director Mike White's sense of humor is so low-key at times that it might better be described as no-key. He often takes the comedy of discomfort--think BORAT or either version of THE OFFICE--to painful and dark places where it ceases to be funny in even an awkward way. He strives to capture the clumsy moments. It's edited so that one can almost here the word "action" being uttered as the actors say their lines. Rather than revealing some truth about the characters, it plays as sloppy filmmaking.
White knows how to find the stinging comment in supposedly reassuring statements, as when Peggy's friend Layla (Regina King) tells the lonely gal not to give up because "even retarded crippled people get married". He also has a wicked touch with needling the self-righteous. There's a ruthlessly hilarious scene in which Peggy gives her brother's family gifts of emancipated farm animals that are named after them and live at a nature sanctuary. Her brother and sister-in-law think the presents are jokes, especially since a pig bears his name and a cow his wife's, but Peggy couldn't be more pleased with herself.
It can be difficult to determine if White is as contemptuous of the characters as he seems to be. YEAR OF THE DOG adopts a sneering tone that verges on the sanctimonious, ironically enough. He relishes rubbing the characters' noses in their pathetic natures, yet clearly White feels some twisted admiration for them and their warts--Peggy, above all others. She is a PETA poster child, a vegan warrior. Shannon performs a reversal of her typical shtick. That she trades her spastic behavior for a morose outlook and fewer broad outbursts still won't create fans out of those like me who find the comic actress off-putting.
White, the screenwriter of THE SCHOOL OF ROCK and NACHO LIBRE, has made a film with his sensibility front and center, but the deadpan jokes can be hard to detect or simply aren't funny. Canines hear sounds inaudible to human ears. Maybe the same is true of the humor in YEAR OF THE DOG.