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Year of the Dog

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Best friends forever: Peggy (Molly Shannon) and Pencil
  • Best friends forever: Peggy (Molly Shannon) and Pencil

David Lynch has nothing on Mike White.

How hard is it to explore the filthy stinking human condition by putting rodent heads on people or making vacuous beauties dance? (See Lynch's Inland Empire -- except don't.) Been there, done that -- by Alain Resnais and Robert Palmer, respectively -- and in less than three hours, all put together.

White merely introduces us to Peggy (Molly Shannon), who loves Pencil, her beagle. Her sassy office gal pal Layla thinks she needs a man. Her supervisor at work thinks they should be on the Orange Team instead of the Green Team. Her brother (Thomas McCarthy) and sister-in-law (Laura Dern) don't know what to think. But Peggy has Pencil, and that's enough for her.

Until, a day or so after we meet them, Pencil dies. This catapults Peggy into a series of events that are at first charmingly disturbing and at last disturbingly complex.

Movies like Office Space, and TV shows like The Office, threaten to make Year of the Dog seem partially familiar. White certainly dissects corporate convention and the oddness it breeds in its hapless, witless, pathetic drones. But he also explored disturbing territory in Chuck & Buck, and in the end, Year of the Dog is no more about animal cruelty than The Plague is about epidemiology.

A few days after Peggy loses Pencil, she gets a call from Newt (Peter Saarsgard), an employee of the animal hospital where Pencil died in the emergency room. He's an affable vegan who finds homes for stray dogs, and he wants Peggy to take Valentine, a full-grown German shepherd with behavioral problems. Newt offers to train the barky dog, and in the process Peggy become smitten.

But Newt has his own issues, one of which is celibacy -- White likes to play with sexual identities -- and to say that Newt's plaintive rejection of her advance doesn't help Peggy in her increasingly isolated state would be like saying that War and Peace is about Russia.

Of course White means us to laugh when Peggy's friendly neighbor (John C. Reilly), a hunter, tells her that he needs to find new things to shoot, "like endangered species, so you can get one before they're all gone." And we've all heard hilarious banalities like, "There is someone on this planet for all of us. Even retarded crippled people get married." White even owes some thanks -- but then, who doesn't -- to John Waters: I haven't seen a dog take a shit on camera since Pink Flamingoes, and I must say, I missed it.

This humor really only lasts for the first half of White's movie. After that, it turns into a jittery and disquieting mélange of divergent sensations. When White's writing isn't intentionally banal, it's highly articulate. As Peggy grows closer in desire to Newt, she becomes a vegan, and she tells her brother's family: "It's nice to have a word that can describe me. I've never had that before."

The acting in Year of the Dog is unobtrusively superficial, which seems appropriate: If these characters don't know how to act like human beings, then why should the actors who portray them? Saarsgard may even be too good for his role, but his character is relatively stable and sincere, so the actor ends up working in a different mode than his peers. There seems to be no movie that Saarsgard can't make a little better, even when it's good to begin with. Shannon does nothing to hurt Year of the Dog, although she usually seems like a sketch comic in a breakout role. She, too, plays someone who's sincere, if deeply disturbed, so White needed an actor of Saarsgard's caliber for balance.

Year of the Dog may make you anxious as you wonder what White will do to Peggy as she descends into what can only be called mental illness. Everything in his world is a fair target for his black humor, except for deep, honest, inconsolable sadness. There are plenty of emotional phonies in the world, but only a few people who really know how thoroughly sad they are. That's a metaphor, but it's literal, too.

Starts Fri., April 27.

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