Every comic performance holds a little nugget of heartbreak inside. But few performances have revealed the tragedy wrapped inside a candy shell of comedy as assuredly as the one Molly Shannon delivers in Year of the Dog. Shannon's performance, as a woman driven over the brink from mere puppy love into animal obsession, shows how life's absurd dimensions can be tragic or comic, and sometimes both.
Making his directing debut, Mike White previously wrote the scripts for (and appeared in) Chuck & Buck, School of Rock and The Good Girl. His first effort behind the camera is a deadpan-hilarious, emotionally adventurous exploration of the bell jar of existence and the alienating effect of other people.
Gingerly misanthropic, Year of the Dog never writes off the human race wholesale. Instead, White's film takes the measure of human love and affection and finds it wanting, a poor substitute for the agenda- and cruelty-free bond between human and animal.
Shannon portrays Peggy, a timid sort whose soul mate is her beloved beagle named Pencil. Peggy lives in a tidy bungalow done up in feminine pastels and botanical studies, and enjoys a cozy, uneventful life eating dinner, watching TV and spooning with her pooch.
Her work life is equally routine. Peggy's secretarial job seems to mostly entail her listening, head slightly tilted with concern, to the complaints of her boss (Josh Pais). Peggy is a kind of puppy herself, expected to just be there, loyal and true. She asks very little of people and gets even less in return.
Grouped with her uptight, yuppie brother (Thomas McCarthy) and sister-in-law (Laura Dern) – both obsessed with raising their children in an allergen-free, soy-milk cocoon – Peggy is equally marginal. She's the nutty, unmarried dog lady who tends to invite pity rather than respect for the path she's chosen.
People, and especially single women, aren't supposed to love their pets too much. (See Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal.) It smacks of loneliness and pitiful immaturity and maybe, at the core, of a love that has no use for human beings. Peggy is overlooked and pushed aside by the more socially acceptable, urgent obsessions of others: work, children or husbands.
Peggy's only relief from the world's monomania appears to come from the soft, gentle comfort of Pencil, who is a bastion of warmth and affection in a cold, sterile world. Best of all, Pencil asks nothing of her.
Considering White's sweetly economical filmmaking, which so tersely and quickly establishes the satisfaction Pencil brings her, it comes as a devastating blow when Peggy's cheerful bubble is burst with Pencil's sudden death. It is the kind of small tragedy most would write off as inconsequential. For Peggy it is devastating.
As the film unfolds, Pencil's death taps into a core of outrage inside Peggy, a fatigue at her interests being pushed to life's margins as a single, childless woman of a certain age expected not to make unnecessary demands on people's time and attention.
It is from this exasperation that Mike White charts Peggy's transformation into a pit bull, demanding respect and attention for her needs and interests. Pencil's death reveals other deaths to Peggy: the casual and wanton destruction of dogs at the animal shelter, the medical lab, the factory and grocery store. Some have fixated on how Peggy becomes a vegan as if Year of the Dog were some shrill PETA political tract. But animals' rights and a vegan lifestyle can be interpreted to some extent as the agent of Peggy's self-actualization. What she principally discovers are the limits to society's kindness and its facade of normalcy. There is killing going on beneath the scrim of reality, and Peggy begins to equate society's casual disregard for the lives of animals with that of her own life.
Year of the Dog sets itself apart by mixing deadly serious social commentary with White's funny, wry compositions – of people in the busy, constricted splendor of an American mall at lunchtime or in the gestures of rubbery empathy that animate Peggy's face. As stylistically fresh and witty as it is emotionally unconventional, White's goosy film style is centered on comic juxtapositions of the banal and the heartfelt, and an Errol Morris-style framing of people dead-center in a vast sea of empty space.
Sweet, hopeful, with some of the same investment in late-blooming passion of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Year of the Dog takes a very different tack from virtually every film with a female lead. Not your ordinary chick flick about a woman who finds escape from her solitude in a man's arms, the film is about an inner journey and a process of self-discovery radically apart from our culture's obsession with romance as life's greatest fulfillment. Along the way, Peggy rejects men with too little empathy (John C. Reilly) and too much (Peter Sarsgaard) but ends up choosing a very complicated and unconventional course for a female film lead.
More than the screenwriter expecting his single-girl heroine to adapt to the world, Mike White adapts reality to suit his quirky protagonist. And there's no doubt reality could use a little bending.