John C. Reilly
1 Hr., 33 Mins.
Year of the Dog
here are no perks to being a wallflower in Mike White’s dejected Year of the Dog (2007). If you’re an outsider for long enough, or if you’ve spent time alone for long enough, chances are you’re on track to live a depressing, maddening life. Take no chances and spend little time investing in personal relationships and you’re en route to becoming a victim of your own stir-craziness.
The wallflower at the center of Year of the Dog is Peggy (Molly Shannon),
and during the film’s 96-minute running time do we increasingly see her losing sight of herself. We understand why.
She works as an administrative assistant, and is the kind of person so often described in juicy community crime stories where a seemingly good person goes off the deep end; “mild-mannered,” “keeps to herself,” and “totally nice” are all characteristics which could be attributed to her. She’s sweet – a great listener, too – but is little else besides pleasant. Friendships and romantic encounters are slim. Her best pals are her excruciatingly perfect brother (Thomas McCarthy), his wife (Laura Dern), and her chatty cubicle neighbor (Regina King), but those affinities mostly consist of nodding along to their troubles. She doesn’t know when she had a boyfriend last.
The only thing that provides her life with some sort of meaning is her dog, a well-behaved beagle named Pencil. Early in the film, though, the mutt escapes from his mistress’ fenced-in yard, and tragically dies when he munches on the bottom of a bag of slug poison. For most pet owners, the grieving process would be difficult but nonetheless short-lived. Not for Peggy. She’s so shaken, you’d swear a long-term lover or a parent had passed.
Then we come to realize that owning Pencil was perhaps the only aspect of Peggy’s life able to keep her from losing her mind. With her few friendships and her nonexistent sex life, at least Pencil kept her distracted from the various things she was missing out on. Now that he’s gone, she’s left to fend for herself, in a way. And as the days pass, that becomes harder and harder.
The feature goes on to detail her breakdown, which is sped up by a botched attempt at a relationship with a volunteer at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Peter Sarsgaard).
The film could easily be insensitive or mocking toward Peggy’s emotional and psychological decline; at one point, she even adopts 15 dogs as a way to ease her disaffections. But instead it decides two things. It’s going to make Peggy imperfect and sometimes unlikable – a casualty of overthinking and an inability to look past herself. It's also going to ensure that we're laughing at the absurdity of the many scenarios Peggy gets herself into, not at Peggy herself. Consider it a character study that makes witty, Terry Zwigoff-esque observations about day to day living that never cheapens itself by undermining the innumerable internal struggles suffered by its heroine.
Much of it is applicable to anyone. Peggy is certainly not the only person in America living an unfulfilling life. And she’s certainly not the only one who feels trapped by her nonexistent social and sex lives and doesn’t know how to change that. And she sure as hell is not alone when she scrutinizes the lives of others and thinks just how much better it would be to be someone else for a day. White heightens this disillusionment through a cast of minor but hyper-specific supporting characters that better enable us to get wrapped up in Peggy’s neuroses.
It is Shannon, though, who makes the feature the particularly painful paen to loneliness that it is. Though most have grown accustomed to the actress taking on aggrandized comedic parts – almost every character she played during her SNL run was a caricature – she proves herself a capable dramatic actress here. Peggy is one of those ultra-precise characters we understand from the get go, and Shannon makes her every action, no matter its inanity, sympathizable. She’s a regular Eleanor Rigby, and she’s portrayed compassionately.
Year of the Dog does fly a little off course the darker it becomes. (Though that notion is probably amplified by the fact that we expect a Jim Jarmusch-style black comedy but end up with Kelly Reichhart-level unapology.) But Shannon, along with co-stars Sarsgaard and Dern, are so excellent here, we’re compelled to continue riding along on this erratic trip – even when the levels of uncomfortability are through the ceiling. B