Several beloved pets die in Year of the Dog, which suggests that the movie must be either a tragedy or a satire—surely no American filmmaker would simulate a pooch’s death just for the heck of it. Yet when this slightly creepy burlesque reaches its open-ended resolution, “whatever” does seem to be the extent of first-time director Mike White’s thesis. This is an animal-rights saga that never really gets aroused about animals, rights, or wrongs.
As a screenwriter and actor, White has specialized in losers, although he’s obliging enough to have written some scripts (School of Rock, notably) in which the loser wins. White’s defining movie is Chuck & Buck, in which he plays the pathologically needy Buck, a grown man desperate to resume the adolescent sexual explorations he undertook years before with his one-time best friend. In Year of the Dog, pathetic loneliness is represented more conventionally: Poor Peggy (Molly Shannon) has a dead-end job as a secretary, and no husband, boyfriend, or even non-workplace female friend. Her only true companion is Pencil, a smallish beagle.
White entered this unusual territory with The Good Girl, in which a miscast Jennifer Aniston impersonated a woman who was deprived economically as well as emotionally. But Year of the Dog takes the usual Hollywood approach to class, ignoring it altogether to place underemployed Peggy in an upscale suburban house. Her problems are not financial but cultural: She lives in a rigidly tidy, utterly sedated world where the music is as bland as the décor. Then Pencil dies, apparently of inadvertent poisoning, and Peggy begins to wake up.
At the vet’s office where Pencil expires, Peggy meets Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), a weirdly placid and apparently asexual man who works with canines that have “behavioral issues.” Peggy adopts one such dog and begins to remake herself as an activist. She becomes a vegan, starts circulating PETA petitions, drags her young niece and nephew to an animal-rescue farm, writes checks to anti-cruelty groups, and impulsively adopts 15 animal-shelter dogs that are marked for death. Fifteen is a lot, of course, but the rest of Peggy’s actions aren’t all that peculiar, except for the way she preemptively entangles other people: She takes the kids to the farm without informing her brother and sister-in-law (Tom McCarthy and Laura Dern), and makes her donations from the account of her boss (Josh Pais), forging his signature. Add her obsession with proving that her macho neighbor (John C. Reilly) is somehow implicated in Pencil’s death, and Peggy is clearly headed for a crisis.
In White’s ironically becalmed world, however, a crisis is barely an event. Only the presence of 15 barking dogs distinguishes Peggy’s meltdown from an everyday funk, and even Peggy’s ultimate confrontation with her neighbor is blandly inconclusive. In Happiness, director Todd Solondz, White’s meaner spiritual cousin, keeps shoving until almost every viewer is jammed against the wall. But White’s big finish is to have Peggy—lampooned for her middle-of-the-road life—discover moderation.
Shannon, who’s probably best known for a recurring Saturday Night Live bit in which she played a clumsy but self-impressed Catholic school girl, doesn’t have a lot of range. Her performance here consists primarily of smiling impossibly wide and delivering lines with the earnestness of a precocious child. (At one point, she does emit a low growl, but it’s just as well that the movie doesn’t elaborate on this canine quality.) Broad, awkward smiles and tranquilized demeanors also characterize the other major players, which may explain why Year of the Dog never develops a meaningful conflict: Everybody’s on the same prescription. (This may be intentional; White includes references to Xanax and a baby doped on Benadryl.) Pencil’s death is a calamity not just for Peggy but for the movie, which never finds another character as expressive as the little beagle.