Year of the Dog
directed by Mike White
(Paramount, 2007)

Peggy Spade is a single fortysomething secretary who has it all: a mind-numbing job, a mind-numbing corporate boss (Josh Pais) who spends most of his time worrying about being assigned to the green team instead of the orange team, a highly successful brother (Thomas McCarthy) with a highly obsessive wife (Laura Dern) who finds fault with everything Peggy gives their highly competitive daughter (played alternately by Amy and Zoe Schlagel) and a foxy best friend (Regina King) who gets her man and all the best dialogue.

But that's OK, because Peggy (Molly Shannon, fresh from her splendid turn as Mrs. Dennit in Talladega Nights) has one thing that makes up for all of the above: her dog, Pencil.

Peggy walks with Pencil, she talks with Pencil, she sleeps with Pencil, she drives with Pencil on her lap. She does everything with Pencil, at least until that fateful night when Pencil goes out for a "t-t" at 3:10 a.m. and doesn't come back. And therein lies a tale.

Year of the Dog is the latest work from writer-director Mike White, who's probably best known to film audiences as the substitute teacher Mr. Schneebly in School of Rock. (No, not the fake Mr. Schneebly. That was Jack Black. White was the real Mr. Schneebly, the one who finally blows the whistle on the fake Mr. Schneebly.) White is less well-known as the guy who wrote School of Rock, not to mention Orange County and Nacho Libre (which, to be kind, we'll mention no more).

Like School of Rock, Year of the Dog is a very personal tale, though one with a very different protagonist. Unlike the fake Mr. Schneebly, Peggy is someone you can really empathize with: She works hard, brings doughnuts to the office, comforts her boss when he feels he's been shortchanged and buys her niece and nephew the coolest stuff imaginable.

And what does she get for her efforts? Abuse, of course.

The best abuse comes from her best friend, who seems to have a rare way with words: "How are you going to find a boyfriend if you keep shacking up with dogs?" Layla asks her.

Still, none of this is able to undo Peggy nearly so much as the loss of Pencil, whose death leads Peggy on an odyssey that would cause the great Ulysses to curl up in a fetal position. In short order, Peggy has begun dating; stopped dating; infuriated her family; taken in more dogs than you can count, much less feed; and signed her boss's name on petitions and checks to animal rights groups.

And yet, White accomplishes all this with a humor that's both gentle and outrageous. Take Peggy's line when she tells her latest hopeful beau (Peter Sarsgaard) that she's become a vegan: "Vegan -- it's nice to have a word that describes you. I never had that before." It's a line that makes you feel for Peggy even while you're laughing.

Dog also reveals White's observant visual style. The characters are often shot head-on, giving the film a very flat feel, but also focusing your attention on what they say -- and on their awkwardness. At the same time, the camera catches both canines and their masters at their most absurd moments. One of my favorites is the shot of Peggy driving home from the pound with a car full of dogs, while another is the framing of Pencil as he watches Peggy going off to work through the uprights of an iron fence. You'd almost think he was a prisoner gazing from his barred window as his only visitor drove off.

Granted, some of the places White takes you in Year of the Dog will make you wonder if it really is the "quirky comedy" it's supposed to be.

Sometimes Peggy gets herself into a bit more trouble than we usually prefer to see our protagonists get into. And deep down, Dog touches on some very touchy themes -- most notably, animal rights and animal rights activism -- which are not easy to address in a "quirky comedy."

So watch it if you dare -- and if you want to see very funny characters, played by some very talented performers, get into and out of some very outlandish situations.

And oh yes -- all those crazy dogs.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

9 May 2009

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