Year of the Dog
August 28, 2007
Since his auspicious debut, Chuck and Buck (2000), screenwriter Mike White has gradually and oh so carefully inched his way into the mainstream with the one-two punch of The Good Girl (2002) and School of Rock (2003). His scripts champion quirky outsiders with a different worldview than “normal” society and, in some cases, irrepressibly march to the beat of a decidedly different drummer (i.e. Nacho Libre). With Year of the Dog (2007), he has finally gotten the chance to direct his own screenplay and provide an ideal vehicle for the criminally underrated Molly Shannon who hasn’t been given a proper starring role since the unfairly maligned guilty pleasure, Superstar (1999). Admittedly, that film didn’t exploit her full potential and since then she’s been relegated to the margins, occasionally surfacing in memorable guest starring roles on television (most notably, her unforgettable recurring stint on Will & Grace and her excellent one-off on Scrubs). It’s about time someone recognized what she can bring to a role.
Peggy (Shannon) is a hard-working secretary, a good friend to her insecure girlfriend (King), a sympathetic ear to her sister-in-law (Dern), and a dog lover. She owns an adorable beagle named Pencil whom she spoils. However, tragedy strikes leaving Peggy despondent and without a pet. Her friends and family try to cheer her up but she is inconsolable. She goes to dinner with her next-door-neighbour, Al (Reilly) and the potential for romance arises but his creepy fascination with hunting rare animals is a bit of a turn-off to an animal lover like Peggy.
Out of the blue she gets a phone call from a kindly pet clinic worker named Newt (Sarsgaard) who offers her a dog named Valentine to adopt. She takes Newt up on his offer and begins hanging out with him while he helps train Valentine. Peggy is drawn to Newt’s caring, sensitive nature which is played by Peter Sarsgaard with just the right amount of ambiguity and idiosyncrasy that keeps us (and her) guessing.
White certainly captures the nuances of what it’s like to own a pet, how they can become an integral part of your family, and how devastating it is when they die. Peggy’s dog provides her with companionship but what she’s missing is a human relationship and is unlucky with the men in her life. She seems to have better luck with animals because they don’t judge her and they love her unconditionally.
Molly Shannon shows a range that she has only hinted at in roles like her tragic paramedic on Scrubs. In Year of the Dog, she finally doesn’t have to play a zany character and instead plays someone more realistic with three-dimensions. Peggy appears normal and well-adjusted on the surface, but there is something that she is clearly struggling with and Shannon does a fine job conveying the complexities of her character. She has to depict real sadness and loss and channels this into an obsession with trying to save every dog she meets – to the detriment of her job, friends and family.
Year of the Dog adheres to White’s perchance for mixing light-hearted comedy with uncomfortable dramatic situations but in his other films he was able to maintain the right balance. With this film, he comes dangerously close to going too far over to the dark side and losing the audience in the process. Fortunately, he is able to pull back just in time and does a fine job showing the trauma that a pet owner goes through when they lose a beloved pet.
There is an audio commentary by writer/director Mike White and actress Molly Shannon. White tends to dominate the track with Shannon chiming in only occasionally early on. Although, she does talk about how she gets into character and they cover variety of topics including crying on cue. As the commentary progresses, she participates more. This is a pleasant track as White and Shannon recount many filming anecdotes.
“A Special Breed of Comedy: The Making of Year of the Dog” is a making of featurette. The inspiration for the film came from the death of a beloved family cat and was a cathartic experience of sorts for White. He found that there were a lot of films about animals but mostly aimed at a family audience. He wanted to make one that explored adult relationships.
“Being Molly Shannon” is a mini-profile of this talented comedienne. She talks about her character and how she approached the role. She was intimidated by the dramatic moments but White knew she could do it and that she partly inspired the character he wrote.
“Mike White Unleashed” features the cast gushing about his talent as a writer and his approach as a director, praising his “vision.” He talks about some of the challenges he faced as a first-time director.
“Special Animal Unit” profiles the dog trainers who worked with the animals in the film. They talk about how they got the dogs to act on camera.
Also included are seven deleted scenes with optional commentary by White. They include Peggy dealing with the loss of Pencil and her reluctance to adopt another dog. There is also more footage of Peggy interacting with the other characters.
“Insert Reel” is a montage of insert shots used in the film – photos, rooms and other objects.
“Gag Reel” is a so-so collection of flubs and blown lines.
Finally, there is “Moviefone Unscripted with Molly Shannon and Mike White.” They ask each other questions submitted by fans. They talk about the origins of the film and how she got involved. This is a light-hearted extra as they seem to be having fun with it.