Peggy (Molly Shannon, "Superstar," "Talledega Nights") is a dowdy real estate secretary content with her single life almost wholly due to the companionship of her beloved beagle Pencil. When an awful accident befalls the pooch, Peggy loses her moorings and changes dramatically during the "Year of the Dog."
Talented screenwriter, sometime actor Mike White ("Chuck & Buck," "The School of Rock") makes his directorial debut with this semi-autobiographical gift to star Molly Shannon after their joint television sitcom, "Cracking Up," tanked. Shannon, who gave one of the great unheralded female comic performances in 1999's "Superstar," does a 180 degree turn here, instead delivering a portrait of a sad, introspective woman who connects better with animals than people.
White and his cinematographer Tim Orr ("George Washington," "The Baxter") present Peggy in center-framed still shots, a passive receptacle for the words of the more aggressively animated people who surround her. There's Layla (Regina King, "Ray," 2007's "24"), the bouncy coworker who believes in partnership but doesn't know her womanizing boyfriend regularly cheats on her. Robin (Josh Pais, "Find Me Guilty") is the drolly put upon boss who secretly depends upon Peggy's personal loyalty. Peggy's solitude is a study in contrast with the home life of brother Pier (Thomas McCarthy, "Flags of Our Fathers"), whose overbearing wife Bret (Laura Dern, "We Don't Live Here Anymore," "Inland Empire") delivers criticisms for every act of kindness Aunt Peggy shows her niece and nephew.
No wonder Peggy's more comfortable curled up on the couch with Pencil by her side. But one morning, after uncharacteristically having left Pencil outdoors in frustration, Peggy traces the whimpers of her whole world to the backyard of neighbor Al (John C. Reilly, "A Prairie Home Companion," "Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny") and finds Pencil in severe distress, the victim of poison. Shattered by her sudden loss, Peggy begins to come out of her shell to fill the void. A date with a sympathetic Al turns horrific when she discovers he's a hunter. Going full circle, Peggy falls for Newt (Peter Sarsgaard, "The Skeleton Key," "Jarhead"), an asexual animal lover who pairs her with Valentine, a behaviorally challenged German Shepherd. When that ends disastrously, Peggy goes over the edge, becoming such a committed animal activist she risks family, home and job.
This decidedly odd little character study is always engrossing because we're never sure what Peggy will do next and Shannon plays her as a mouse who dares to roar. A real passion for animals comes through in both her performance and White's committed screenplay, which treats Peggy with tender and melancholy compassion. The character is further defined and complemented by the art direction team, who surround her with cutout Cathy comics and touching framed pictures of Pencil on the beach, and a costumer who's chosen Lanz of Salzburg sleepwear and functional, plain dayware. Support is great all around with Dern humorously horrible, Sarsgaard embodying the celibate passive aggressive manipulator and Pais oppositional yet sweetly sympathetic nonetheless. Regina King supplies vivid energy to all her scenes while John C. Reilly is the picture of normalcy amongst a decided group of oddballs.
"Year of the Dog" is another real original from White, a film with an unexpected personal journey that is a loving showcase for Shannon.
Peggy Spade (Molly Shannon) and her little beagle, Pencil, are inseparable. Having never married, the pup is her surrogate child, companion and friend so it is a terrible thing when she finds Pencil lying prone and very sick outside her neighbor Al’s (John C. Reilly) home. She rushes her pooch to the nearest veterinary but it is too late for the little guy. Peggy, in despair, tries to fill the void created by her loss and things get strange, indeed, in “Year of the Dog.”
Molly Shannon gives her best performance since her outrageous starring debut in the wildly funny and imaginative “Superstar.” Peggy, an obsessive, motherly figure, is kept in check by the simple needs and affection of Pencil. When her little buddy is no longer on the scene, she tries to fill his space by adopting another animal in need. She visits the local animal shelter and meets Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) who suggests that she consider adopting Valentine, a German shepherd with an abused past. She agrees but the decision is not a good one for her or Valentine.
Mike White, known for his quirky, amusing screenplays (“Chuck & Buck,” “School of Rock,” “Nacho Libre”) makes his directing debut with a story about obsession, over compensation and love. Peggy, a solitary person, finds everything she needs in little Pencil, who is unwavering in his affection for and loyalty to his mistress. The chasm his sudden death creates seems an unfillable void but Peggy seeks to do just that, first with Valentine, then with Newt until she goes over the edge and liberates 15 strays slated for euthanizing at the local pound. Her life soon goes completely out of control, if there was any control to begin with.
Year of the Dog” seems like a comedy, at first, but there is much more depth and angst than its lighthearted title might suggest. Tyro helmer White captures the spirit of what it is to be a pet lover, especially when you lose that beloved little critter. Molly Shannon grabs hold of this spirit and runs with it to satisfying affect. It helps, too, that she is surrounded by a veteran cast of talented performers. Peter Sarsgaard is, again, a chameleon with his turns as Newt, the asexual animal activist and vegan. Regina King shows her versatility as Peggy’s bubbly best friend, Layla. Laura Dern is perfect in the small role as Peggy’s all controlling, knows-everything sister-in-law Bret. John C. Reilly, always a solid character actor, fits the bill in a sleazy way as an unsatisfying date turned Peggy’s nemesis. Josh Pais plays it well as Shannon’s insecurity-riddle boss, Robin.
The craftsmanship of Mike White’s fine screenplay, the caliber of the cast and his understanding of the universal love we have for our pets makes his directorial debut very assured and appealing. Anybody who has lost a cherished pet will feel Peggy’s pain. Her subsequent, over-the-top obsession and the changes it entails in her life is the meat and potatoes of Year of the Dog” and it is a pleasant, if oddball, meal. I give it a B.
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