'Year of the Dog' is furry odd

Posted: April 20, 2007

THE THIN line between devoted and deranged is explored in the strange comedy "Year of the Dog," the story of a woman whose life falls apart when her dog dies.

Peggy (Molly Shannon) is a single woman whose most loyal friend and companion is her little dog Pencil; she has Pencil's picture on her desk at work, part of a pink dog paraphernalia theme that dominates her work station and her home.

There are kitschy/funny overtones to "Year of the Dog," but when poor little Pencil ingests a toxic substance and dies, writer-director Mike White takes the grief seriously - the scenes will be tough on anyone who knows what it's like to lose a favorite pet.

Peggy is beyond unhappy, she's unhinged. An animal rescue volunteer (Peter Sarsgaard) suggests that she adopt an abused dog, which she does, and a zealot is born. For Peg, a battle to save one dog becomes a battle to save all of them, then animals in general.

For example: Assigned to babysit her preteen nieces, she drags them to a slaughterhouse, intending to expose them first-hand to the horrors of processed meat.

In one interesting passage, Peggy becomes a vegan, and talks about how wonderful it is to find a word and a lifestyle that describes and defines her so completely. Is this the comfortable insularity of the militant?

She also imagines her shared interests with Sarsgaard's character is a form of love, until he informs her that he's just not that into humans. It's a funny moment - White describes Sarsgaard as an actor who occupies the full-range of the Kinsey sexual orientation scale, and his hard-to-read persona is put to good use here.

Ditto Shannon - believable as an overlooked, middle-aged single woman, but with an edgy and unpredictable side that merges with Peggy's loosening grasp on life.

"Year of the Dog" kept putting me in mind of "Grizzly Man," the documentary about a man who tried to live among bears. That film touched on a darker aspect of animal activism - how a love of animals can go hand in hand with a withdrawal from humanity, even a contempt for it.

Peggy goes down that road, one of several object lessons on obsession in "Year of the Dog." Her sister (Laura Dern) is obsessed with her children, her friend (Regina King) is obsessed with marriage, her boss is obsessed with workplace success.

Are they all equivalent? Peg's rapid descent suggests otherwise. She loses her job, and her house is so full of animals and filth that municipal officials must intervene. But White pulls Peggy back from the edge, rather abruptly.

"Year of the Dog" concludes with a voice-over that indicates - stipulates, actually - that Peg has learned how to channel her obsession into something healthy.

You understand why White does this: without the narration, the ending is ambiguous, possibly disturbing. "Year of the Dog" is long-time screenwriter White's first turn as director, and he leans on the crutch of the written word to spell everything out. It leaves "Dog" with a conclusion that feels dictated rather than dramatized. *

Produced by Dede Gardner and Ben LeClair, written and directed by Mike White, music by Christophe Beck, distributed by Paramount Vantage.

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