Appellate Judge James A. Stewart can't call this movie a dog—or even a turkey. He has too much respect for animals for that.
"Wow. That's a lot to process. D-E-A-T-H."
Year of the Dog is billed on its cover as a "charming and quirky comedy." It might be called quirky (or, more accurately, just kind of strange), but I didn't find it charming. I didn't find it comedic, either.
It starts out sweetly enough, at least, as it follows Peggy (Molly Shannon, Saturday Night Live), a middle-aged woman who dotes on her dog, Pencil. It's kind of cute the way Pencil snuggles up next to her in bed and watches sadly each day as she drives off to work (Peggy's sad about leaving, too).
Then the dog dies.
Pushed by colleague and friend Layla (Regina King, 24) into trying the dating thing, Peggy ends up going out with neighbor and avid hunter Al (John C. Reilly, A Prairie Home Companion) and winds up suspecting him in Pencil's death. After an SPCA guy (Peter Sarsgaard, Flightplan) asks her to adopt a problematic German Shepherd, Peggy's falling for him. Even though he's not interested, Peggy becomes fascinated by his vegan diet and his commitment to animal rights.
Then Peggy becomes obsessed, to the point of embezzling company funds to send checks to animal rights groups and terrifying her young niece with talk about slaughterhouses. And Year of the Dog dies.
I laughed out loud during one scene, as Peggy tells her brother, sister-in-law (Laura Dern, Wild At Heart), and niece that she's had rescued farm animals named after them for Christmas. I smiled a little bit at the expressions of Peggy's co-workers as she serves vegan cupcakes in the office. That's about it for the comedy. I think a sequence late in the movie in which Peggy adopts 15 dogs and lets them run loose in her home was supposed to be hilarious. I didn't think it actually was, though.
The production information says the character of Peggy was written for Molly Shannon, apparently to prove her acting chops. As near as I can tell, she has them; at first I was sympathetic to the character, even if I wasn't laughing much. Since that sympathy was all Year of the Dog had going for it, I didn't like the movie much after Peggy started getting too weird. After a while, it just made me squirm and check my watch a lot.
You may think bachelors just lack empathy. You'd be wrong. I had a lot of empathy, even pity, for any other singles out there who might stumble on Year of the Dog and rent it, looking for that "charming and quirky comedy."
In the commentary, writer and first-time director Mike White (writer of Nacho Libre) mimics an interviewer who said he was lost when Peggy started embezzling. White notes in the commentary that he wanted to start his movie off looking like a romantic comedy, and then take it in a darker direction. While there's nothing wrong with darker directions, it's best to telegraph it; the audience for a romantic comedy or even a comic character study will probably resent the sleight-of-hand. It's also a good idea to put in laugh-out-loud moments that relieve the tension.
Oddly, I'm not even sure whether White is in sympathy with animal rights activists or wanted to mock them, even after listening to the commentary.
White kept his camera work simple on purpose, delivering mostly static medium shots that sometimes make Year of the Dog look like a reality show and sometimes just make the tightly budgeted production look more rushed than it was. The picture and sound come across well in the transfer.
The movie has lots of extras, just over 45 minutes' worth by my reckoning. The shorts about the making of the movie have lots of quotes like "It's all over the place, kind of like Mike's mind" (Regina King), "Some people will be laughing and some people will be crying" (Producer Ben LeClair), and "It really is neither drama nor comedy; it certainly has elements of both" (Peter Sarsgaard). Take them as you will.
An insert reel which puts offbeat insert shots and a nifty score by Christophe Beck in the foreground is a nice touch. It hints that director Mike White has a good eye for detail, even if the overall picture didn't gel.
The funniest thing on the gag reel, and perhaps on the DVD, is a brief scene of Laura Dern ad-libbing as she chases away an insect on the set. This actually got me thinking about what I didn't like about Year of the Dog. With people like Molly Shannon, Laura Dern, Regina King, and John C. Reilly in the cast, there were possibilities for some freewheeling comedy and touching drama here. Instead, the teary scenes get overplayed and the comic ones get underplayed. I can't help thinking that too tight a rein on these actors diminishes the results.
A movie that starts out resembling a romantic comedy and then turns toward the tragic, Year of the Dog is guilty of being a downer and a cheat.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Mike White and Molly Shannon
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