Year of the Dog
First screened and reviewed in April 2007
Director: Mike White. Cast: Molly Shannon, Peter Sarsgaard, Josh Pais, Regina King, Laura Dern, John C. Reilly, Tom McCarthy, Dale Godboldo, Christy Lynn Moore, Liza Weil, Amy Schlagel, Zoe Schlagel. Screenplay: Mike White.

Twitter Capsule: I admire White for empathizing so fully with fellow misfits, but character study is blurry and "style" too modest.

VOR:   Determinedly minor, which is both its principal badge of honor and a reason to feel fine about ignoring it.

Photo © 2007 Paramount Vantage Pictures
The opening sequence of Mike White's Year of the Dog is by any calculation the film's most charming. We meet Peggy (Molly Shannon), an office secretary who is prematurely dowdy in a totally believable way, and whose dearest companion is her beagle Pencil. Through an admittedly obvious roundelay of benign but unsatisfying social encounters, with her brother Pier (Thomas McCarthy) and his wife Bret (Laura Dern), with her marriage-minded co-worker Layla (Regina King), and with her dyspeptic boss Robin (Josh Pais), the downcast aura of Peggy's life is quickly established, and though it's clear that purpose and human companionship have both proven elusive, the film refuses to pity her for the intimacy of her bond with Pencil. A stroke as simple as the duplication of the same shot of a nightgowned Peggy scratching Pencil's neck in bed, repeated before and after her day of doldrums, establishes not just the dull routine of Peggy's life but the coziness of this domestic ritual, the pure second-nature of loving Pencil and of being mourned by him when she leaves in the morning for work.

It doesn't hurt that Pencil is unimpeachably adorable, but it does hurt that he represents the movie's surest stroke of casting. What unfolds, sadly, when Pencil dies of a curious poisoning incident early in the movie is that this tender-hearted but aesthetically stunted movie casts about wildly in search of tone and technique. Someone overpaid skilled cinematographer Tim Orr (George Washington, Raising Victor Vargas) to shoot such a bleached and indifferently framed movie, which noticeably racks its focus or adjusts its camera angle mid-shot a few times, as though writer-director White is hovering over Orr's shoulder and changing his mind about how best to capture the itchy, shapeless scenes he has written for his uncomfortable cast. Often, these pedigreed actors—also including John C. Reilly as an initially sympathetic neighbor and Peter Sarsgaard as an animal-shelter employee running a dog-training business on the side—are forced to play scenes directly to the camera, Silence of the Lambs-style, and even Memento editor Dody Dorn can't find a way to cut these scenes together so that the rhythms feel human. The strangeness of the device, both ostentatious and dreary, refuses recuperation. The production design is dismayingly thin, even for a movie without a lot of money to spend, and composer Christophe Beck twangs and plucks on strings while banging away on some discordant percussion, basically doing his best Thomas Newman impression, which still falls well short of the mark.

Year of the Dog fails repeatedly with its aesthetic conceits and its attempts at mimicking a surer directorial style that obviously doesn't come naturally to White. For his part, the writer-director all but embraces the dog-eared quality of his filmmaking, as though a humble aesthetic, however witting or not, is the right choice to underscore the modesty of Peggy's life and surroundings. Sometimes this gamble, if that's what it is, pays off with a credible and rare impression of wage-working life and single womanhood that isn't wholly given over to Sex and the City clichés. Buying a new dog isn't code for trawling for a boyfriend, although amidst that errand Peggy is pursued by one man and she herself pursues another, with unwanted and unpredictable outcomes in both cases. I appreciated that White was so devoted to keeping Peggy's bond to dogs and to animals in general at the center of her story, and despite his hit-and-miss story construction and non-existent visual gifts, Year of the Dog occasionally conveys a credible sense of Peggy's implicit faith in the goodness of animals (and of her own dogs, in particular). Similarly, the movie hits a few unexpected grace notes in its final half-hour when it attempts to describe the surprising left-turns that an under-examined life can suddenly follow in the wake of a ground-shifting event. Peggy takes in some new pooches and engages in new ways with almost everyone she knows, but White manages to assure us that the local adjustments within these rapports are really just symptomatic of a larger change. Peggy interacts with the world, with the pure concepts of ethics and independence, in a way she never previously has. At moments—short ones, but they count for a lot—the film taps into her resolve and her pleased surprise at her own unexpected metamorphosis.

But much more often, the film is simply too inconsistent in its writing and inadequate in its playing to click with an audience, or even to click with itself. Peggy seems one-dimensional, a workshop sketch who never became a real character, and White can't quite decide who she is. It's hard to account for how White got so distracted from figuring Peggy out—he can't be accused of fussing too much with the look or the rhythm of his film—but the Peggy who crusades for animal charities doesn't jell with the forger of checks, and neither of these women seems likely to cart her niece to an abattoir (which neither she nor the film can actually manage to enter), and none of these women struck me as capable of Peggy's foolhardy and frankly destructive gesture of adopting 15 dogs in one fell swoop, and then languishing around her own apartment while they wreck the place and smother it with excrement. What either of these women is doing hanging out with the sweet but antic Layla remains a mystery, unredeemed by the usually reliable King, whose forehead looks suspiciously stiff, and whose lighting is as weirdly delicate as Molly Shannon's is abjectly severe.

What the film clearly intends is to capture Peggy as well as her environment as they graduate from the low-intensity schizophrenia of grief and loneliness to the high-intensity schizophrenia of Peggy's climactic and crazy grandes gestes. But the film lacks the chops to present chaos or diffuse emotion in a bracing, coherent way, and in Molly Shannon, Year of the Dog feels the stinging lack of a genuine actress. She plays into White's crude direction as though, simply by relinquishing the mugging of her SNL days, she will construct a functional dramatic character. She doesn't—Peggy is cryptic and patched-together, and the actress visibly sweats the small stuff in easy moments while appearing to sail through complicated scenes that she consigns to confusion and superficiality. It's never easy to save a wobbly screenplay, especially a character study without a legible character, and though Shannon isn't bad, exactly, her performance suggests that White is perfectly content with what she offers, because he's already in love with anything raffish, inchoate, or manifestly imperfect. Chuck & Buck, scripted by White and directed by Miguel Arteta, proves that he's a talented writer, but all of his scripts have suffered from structural and psychological vagueness. In the director's chair, he suggests an Ed Wood tendency to stoke and receive mediocrity, and to trust mediocrity more than skill or real achievement. It's generous of him to hold such a soft spot for the fallibility of people and the inherent limits of do-it-yourself filmmaking; this generosity allows him to hear some minor chords of mundane despair and nascent transformation that a filmmaker working at self-consciously higher frequencies might omit. But a claim like that is also an easy "out" for a film that rarely knows what it's doing or who it's about. Year of the Dog's ending is brave from a certain angle but confounding and cheap from most others, especially given the nonsensical montage that precedes it. (Why is Layla's boyfriend at work?) The film feels simultaneously over-extended and like it has barely begun. Rather than wishing Peggy well in her coming endeavors, I left the theater regretting that we were never properly introduced. Grade: C

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