Year of the Dog

Molly Shannon, even a muted Molly Shannon, is the gold in Mike White’s oppressive, dry observational “comedy.”

Peggy (Molly Shannon) has just lost her dog Pencil and her life is ruined. Peggy’s world was defined by Pencil’s companionship and without him she’s left to deal with the indignities of her life. Finding support in a fellow pet lover (Peter Sarsgaard), Peggy is indoctrinated into the world of vegans, animal cruelty, and other PETA-like life choices. Now with purpose, but without aim, Peggy’s life goes from a polite disaster to a trainwreck in no time.

Screenwriter Mike White’s film career has been associated with polarizing little idiosyncratic feature films (“The Good Girl,” “Nacho Libre,” “School of Rock”) since the day he burst on the scene with 2000’s “Chuck & Buck.” So, it makes sense that for his feature-film directing debut, he’d pick a subject matter that divides audiences and toys with a vanilla tone long enough to where the film actually ceases to have a mood. If “Year of the Dog” is White stretching out his filmmaking muscles, maybe he should stick to Jack Black comedies. He’s awfully good at those.

“Dog” is held together by Shannon and her sympathetic reading of Peggy. The character is molded after the traditional office space zombie: a cubicle worker beaten into submission by repetition and sterile workspace friendships. Now without her only friend, Peggy’s journey-to-Oz story is a perfect match for Shannon’s offbeat gift for channeling anxiety and social discomfort. She’s a gem here, carefully burying her typical bottle rocket comedic inclinations to present Peggy’s naked emotions and eventual slide into sloppy confusion when her social causes start to cloud her judgment.

“Dog” is a comedy, a drama, and a lifestyle statement all in one very methodical movie, but what it required from White was a peppered personality. Instead, taking Peggy’s wallflower lead, “Dog” is nearly a silent film, never pushing too hard in any direction. It’s an observational story, taking in the performances and character arcs, but come on; a little more spice or more frenzied leaps at comedy wouldn’t have killed White. He’s making the audience wait a very long time exploring an elementary screenwriting idea (the sat-upon woman finding her bliss), you’d think he’d at least push for the laughs to be stronger or the emotions more profound. Hell, even Peggy gets to feel something at the end of the film. The same invitation is not extended to the viewer.

Rating: D
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