April 26, 2007

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Year of the Dog (PG-13)
Molly Shannon plays a secretary a little too attached to her pets in Year of the Dog, a cringey comedy from Mike White, writer of Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl.

Peggy (Shannon) is something of a good girl herself — a meek, patient secretary who lives in a tidy home and wears a disturbingly grandma-ish flannel nightgown when she enjoys a solitary night of television. Her source of joy? She loves, desperately sadly loves, Pencil, her small dog. One night, Pencil ventures out into the yard and never comes back. She finds him the next morning whimpering and sick in the neighbor’s backyard. She gets him to the vet but alas, Pencil dies from ingesting some kind of poison.

Peggy’s well-meaning but mildly insensitive friends aren’t exactly helpful with her plight. Her brother Peter (Thomas McCarthy) and his wife Brett (Laura Dern), yuppies obsessed with their small children, get twitchy when she brings up Pencil — “D. E. A. T. H.,” Brett spells “is a lot to process” for their coddled daughter. Marriage-hungry officemate Layla (Regina King) tries to convince Peggy that the answer is “a man” and that dating is the best way to get over Pencil. Peggy actually does have a prospect — Al (John C. Reilly), the neighbor in whose yard she found Pencil, has asked her out for dinner.

Animal-loving Peggy does not hit it off with hunter Al but she does develop a crush on Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), the somewhat weenie-ish dog trainer who convinces her to adopt Valentine, an obviously troubled German shepherd-like dog who snaps at her when she goes to pet him. Peggy adopts him anyway, in part to stay connected to Newt, a vegan who introduces Peggy to a whole new animal rights obsession.

As Peggy slowly loses her mind, the movie examines how everybody — parents, desperate singles, weird hunters — has some sort of near-pathological obsession, though some are more socially acceptable than others. Peter and Brett (so absorbed into the padded-edges philosophy of yuppie parentdom that Brett sniffs a new stuffed animal in search of materials that could give her children allergies) and Layla (who is fanatical about her calculated relationship with a highly imperfect boyfriend whom she plans to lock into marriage) are in some ways every bit as nutty as Peggy. It’s Peggy’s extremism — embezzling money to send to animal activist organizations, adopting a dozen dogs to prevent them from being put to sleep — that leads her to some scary new level of dedication to a personal cause. And it lays even more bare how empty she feels about all the rest of her life.

That’s the squishy I-am-you-and-you-are-me-and-we-are-all-the-lonely-dog-lady heart of Year of the Dog but there are plenty of embarrassingly funny moments that keep it from falling into some Cathy-cartoon sad-sack pit. There’s a lot of it out there in the world but I still haven’t tired of the awkward comedy that makes movies like this and TV shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm so enjoyable. Equal parts I’m-glad-that-isn’t-me and I’ve-been-there-and-that-is-me, this style of comedy has not yet reached saturation with me — it’s still some of the truest form of storytelling and has far more complexity and is more real than straight-up drama.

If your romance with squirm-in-your-seat humor has died, however, I can see how Year of the Dog could be a bit of a slog at times. But for those of us still happily enterained by the awkward, Shannon’s nervous meekness is at perfect pitch and the quiet, screwball-observational style of comedy is solid. B

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive references. Written and directed by Mike White, Year of the Dog is an hour and 38 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Paramount Vantage. The film is currently playing the Boston area.