Though Year of the Dog stars Saturday Night Live alumna Molly Shannon and is shot in sunny SoCal tones by cinematographer Tim Orr, the movie classifies as a comedy only by the slimmest of margins. Not because the movie isn't funny—it is, often—but because it's suffused with a deep and incurable melancholy. Mike White, the screenwriter (Chuck & Buck, The School of Rock, Nacho Libre), makes his directorial debut with Year of the Dog, and it's the most thorough portrait yet of the world according to White. His characters tend to be loners and losers, like Jennifer Aniston's mopey store clerk in The Good Girl, whose struggles we take seriously even as we smile at their transparent self-delusions. White excels at those long awkward moments in which people try to communicate, fail miserably, and stand there smiling stiffly anyway—but unlike many practitioners of cringe comedy, he seems to truly love his sad-sack menagerie of characters. The quintessential White hero is a holy fool, a type Molly Shannon plays here with both fearlessness and a strange nobility.
Shannon is Peggy, a 40-ish administrative assistant who lives alone with her beloved beagle Pencil. When Pencil is accidentally poisoned in the garage of her next-door neighbor (John C. Reilly), Peggy is completely bereft—a state of mind mistaken by everyone she knows for something other than simple grief. Her office-mate Layla (Regina King) is sure that all Peggy needs is a good man and a rock on her finger. Her yuppie brother and sister-in-law (Tom McCarthy and Laura Dern) fail to see any connection between Peggy's mourning for Pencil and their own smothering love for their children. The next-door neighbor himself asks Peggy out on a date, but she's horrified by his house full of hunting knives and taxidermied deer. Only an employee at the veterinarian's where Pencil died, a sensitive dog trainer named Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) seems to have any sympathy for her loss. Through her friendship with Newt, Peggy turns vegan, adopts a troubled dog from a shelter, and begins to blossom … but what is she blossoming into?
Just when we think we know what movie we're watching—the story of a wallflower's personal and erotic liberation—White gets sneaky on us. Yes, Peggy seems happier and more fulfilled by her conversion to animal-rights activism, but she also shows signs of a disturbing cultlike rigidity: "It's nice to have a word that can describe you," she sighs in contentment to her brother after professing her veganism. "I've never had that before." She works up the courage to confess her feelings to Newt, only to be excruciatingly rebuffed (Sarsgaard excels at capturing a type I've never seen portrayed in a movie before: the passive-aggressive, ambiguously gay celibate.) Peggy's boss Robin (Josh Pais, in a neurasthenic Mike White-style performance) warns her to stop canvassing for her causes at work, and she responds with a swift and surprising act of revenge that threatens to unravel her whole world.
Though it plays like an episodic character drama, Year of the Dog actually contains a suspense plot as well, even if it takes a little long to kick in. Watching the naive, idealistic Peggy set herself up for humiliation and failure, we wince at every misstep. But we also can't help but cheer on her lunatic quest to save the world, one free-range chicken at a time. As in Chuck & Buck, character pathology is regarded with a kind of benign affection. Sure, Peggy is needy, deluded, and just plain nuts, but at least she's got something to believe in!
Year of the Dog is by no means a perfectly assured debut. White's camera framing sometimes serves (unintentionally, I think) to undercut his purpose: For example, he repeatedly shoots his subjects from a flat, full-frontal angle that implies they're being satirized, even when they're not. The music, a peppy blend of synth-vibes and indie rock, sometimes nudges our emotions in a direction they were already headed anyway. But these are small inconsistencies of tone in a movie that succeeds in so many other ways. Year of the Dog asks how far we should be willing to go for the love of animals, and for that matter, for love itself. The movie's sophistication lies in the fact that White isn't sure there's any one right answer.