Review by Gary Murray


    I haven't owned a dog since I was three.  My mutt Pistol was given to me on my 3rd birthday in October and was run over by a drunk driver on Christmas Day that same year.  I don't really remember it, but my parents said I was devastated.  But there must be something in the backwash of my brain because since that day, I have never had another dog.  So I somehow understand the concept of the loss of a beloved pet.  That is the starting point for a comedy called Year of The Dog.

    Molly Shannon of SNL fame stars as Peggy Spade, a mousy woman who has resigned herself to a life of middle class loneliness.  It is almost reminiscent of the beginning of the 40 year-old Virgin in terms of pathos.   Peggy's only ray of sunshine in this world is her beagle Pencil.  She revolves her life around this hound, to the point of putting lotion on its paws and having Christmas card pictures taken of them.  As she states in the film "I was only able to count on my pets."  One late night, Peggy lets Pencil out to do his business in the backyard and goes back to bed.  The next morning Pencil is not there.  She goes next door; asking her neighbor Al (John C. Reilly) if he has seen her dog.  They go into his backyard and find Pencil, on the ground, obviously in sever pain.  Peggy rushes Pencil to the vet but it is too late.  The dog is dead from toxic poisoning.  This starts the downward spiral of Peggy, showing the lack of support in her world.  Her brother and sister-in-law are too obsessed with their own yuppie lifestyle than to take the loss of a pet seriously.  Peggy's coworker Layla (Regina King) is too obsessed with trying to get her boyfriend to buy an engagement ring than to truly understand her supposed friend.  The boss is more worried about his status in the company than anything else.  He is droll and unmotivated.  Peggy does have some people outside her support circle who awkwardly try and help.  Al takes her on a disastrous date that ends with Peggy seeing all his mounted animal trophies.  But, Peggy is more interested in going into Al's garage in order to find the poison that she believes he left out for her Pencil to get into.  Newt, a vet worker (Peter Sarsgaard) remembered how bad Peggy took the loss and recommends that she adopt a new dog.  Newt us a very sexually ambiguous person, who seems more comfortable with wounded animals than human beings.  Peggy does take in the dog that Newt needs to find a home.  This beast is nothing like her Pencil.  The new dog Valentine has been abused and has a vicious streak, biting Peggy.  But it does start a relationship between Peggy and Newt.

     The film is about the human relationships of Peggy as she goes through the grief process.  It is mixed with her awakening to a 'greater good' in the relationship between man and beast.  It stimulates her activism. The entire composite experience of Year of the Dog is mix of emotions.  One laughs at the characters instead of with them.  A river of sadness runs through each person.   The film doesn't revel in experience of being different but slyly mocks being different.  And when the turn comes about, one feels guilty about laughing.

    There are some positive bits in Year of the Dog.  I loved Laura Dern as the sister in law who acts as if she were the first person in the world to have birthed a child.  Her self-centered drive and shocked manners give some true belly laughs in the piece.  The dog that plays Pencil shows greater expressions than his two-legged cast.  I think that Molly Shannon is like Jon Lovitz, a great comedic force that is best used sparingly.  Both have done some great work in very small parts, lifting films up, but neither seems to be able to carry an entire motion picture.  Their shtick gets a bit old after a bit.

    Mike White is a wonderful writer (School of Rock) and a first time director.  His lack of style rings in volumes.  The camera is never engaged in the process.  There is a serious disconnect between frame and subject.  This is an example of how not to make a movie.  Year of the Dog is a film only Bob Barker could love.  It seems a bit disingenuous in the final precis and never embraces the characters.  And the ending credits state the political correct nature of the work.  There is a statement that the film is a 'carbon neutral' production.  Another 'badge of honor' I'm sure one will see on every future motion picture.

Visit the official Paramount Vantage YEAR OF THE DOG movie website by clicking here.

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