Year of the Dog (2007)
Starring: Molly Shannon, Laura Dern, Regina King, Thomas McCarthy, Josh Pais, John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard, Amy Schlagel
Directed by: Mike White
When I first heard about this movie, all it took was the poster to get me interested. Since it has a beagle on the cover, I had to watch it. Seeing the trailer with even more beagley goodness (set to Cat Stevens‘ “I Love My Dog”) sealed the deal. The presence of a beagle in a key role in the movie was enough to counteract the presence of Molly Shannon in a lead role for me (for those who don’t know, I am the proud owner of a one-year-old beagle named Gromit). The fact that the movie was Mike White‘s directorial debut also added some interest, but I’ve both enjoyed and disliked movies he’s written, so the main selling feature was the beagle.
Year of the Dog introduces us to Peggy (Shannon), an office wallflower who garners little attention or respect from co-workers or family, but is happy to live out her quiet life in the company of her beagle Pencil. When Pencil dies from toxic poisoning, Peggy struggles to overcome her grief and fill the void of his absence while attempting to find new meaning in her life.
Yes, the beagle dies. It’s just about the most devastating thing I’ve ever seen in a movie and I’m a little choked up thinking about it now. Luckily, I knew about it going into the movie (since it’s what the movie is about), so I was able to maintain my manly composure while my wife sobbed beside me (why we decided to watch this movie while Gromit was being dog-sat, I don’t know).
Thankfully, the movie doesn’t treat Peggy as some pathetic caricature of a pet lover. In most movies, she would be, shoved to the side and marginalized as some unusual office denizen, perhaps not even given name, just credited as “dead dog lady”. Instead, Year of the Dog affords her and her grief some dignity, and Shannon plays her straight without any of the tics and spazz tactics that are usually her custom. She undergoes a dramatic transformation following the death of pencil, forming an attraction to the unusual and damaged Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), an SPCA worker who contacts her after Pencil’s death to get Peggy to take in a problem dog before he is put down. Through him, she discovers a passion for veganism and animal rights, and throws herself into these new passions with zeal, replacing her grief with activism.
It’s here where the movie switches tone from a light-albeit-heavy-hearted dramedy to something more subversive. It’s an interesting shift, if not an entirely successful one. It’s a comedy that never really makes you laugh, and a drama that isn’t treated as dramatic. White (who wrote as well as directed) populates the movie with his usual quirky characters, but makes sure not to treat any of them as complete jokes. Along the way, he touches on some interesting things on the close relationship between activism and zealotism and the cult of parenthood in today’s society. But since the movie is forced to keep the light air of a comedy, it doesn’t get deep enough into these areas to really flesh them out.
It’s unfortunate, because I think the movie would work better as straight-up adult drama than as the comedy-drama hybrid it’s forced to be. I agree that it’d be hard to get a drama made about a woman who loses her dog and falls apart over it, given that many people greet that premise as ridiculous in of itself. As it is, I liked the movie more than I didn’t, but not as much as I think I could have. Molly Shannon is a revelation in the movie, proving that she’s capable of more than just “Mary Katherine Gallagher” riffs. Oh, and the dogs were cute. Overall, it gets a decent recommendation for dog lovers, just as long as you can deal with the opening act.