The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, December 15, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Year of the Dog

Originally published 5/17/07
Full review behind the jump

Year of the Dog

: Mike White
: Mike White
: Mike White, Jack Black, Dede Gardner, Ben LeClair
: Molly Shannon, Laura Dern, Regina King, John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard, Thomas McCarthy, Josh Pais

The movies often act as a means for the audience to exercise behavior correction and judgment. We will characters to act the way we think they should act and feel the things we think they should feel. It’s a reflection of our self-pressure to behave within acceptable boundaries; even when movie characters act out, we think, they should act out in ways that we already fantasize about.

Filmmaker Mike White has no use for movies that work this way. His screenplays for films like
Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl are about characters who go tumbling through the barricades of what we declare acceptable, and yet still earn our affection because we sense love in their hearts.

And now, with his directorial debut,
Year of the Dog, he gives us a main character who plummets from a carefully-maintained norm into actions that are first impolite and eventually downright criminal. And yet we don’t hate her or refuse her position at the center of this story, because we recognize that she wouldn’t have done any of this if she didn’t miss her dog so much.

Peggy (Molly Shannon) has a stable, unsurprising job as an executive assistant, a job which mostly involves listening to her boss (Josh Pais) quietly confess his latest paranoia about the way the company is treating him. Everyone in this soft, pastel world looks slightly strangled by the unknown, like off in the distance they can hear a buzzing sound that represents their smallness in the universe. Watch the double-jointed smiles on the face of Peggy’s sister-in-law Bret (Laura Dern), who sees everything as a dire threat to the perfect innocence of her daughter, but doesn’t want to make too big a fuss about it.

To survive this pervasive anxiety, Peggy has built a bubble around her life. She takes care of those near her – donuts for the break room, presents for her niece and nephew, a sympathetic ear for whomever hijacks her attention – but no one gets past the perimeter except her beagle, Pencil, to whom she devotes limitless love and care. Our instinct as moviegoers is to demand that a single woman of around 40 be unsatisfied with her routine so she can meet a rugged single man of around 40, possibly with an adorable pre-made munchkin. But it’s hard to find anything that doesn’t work about her and Pencil and their cozy little house.

But then, in one of those awful and senseless incidents that happen all too easily, she loses Pencil, and her world crumbles. Anyone who has ever lost a pet knows that in that moment you do not think of them as a dependent, sub-intelligent creature. They were your dear friend. And thus begins the shattering of her old existence.

She tries the usual things. She goes out on a date with a neighbor (John C. Reilly), who is a bit passionate about hunting (“These are my knives”, he points out, like one might show off your kid's school pictures). But for reasons both rational and irrational she has linked him to Pencil’s loss, and cannot accept his kindness.

She tries a new dog, one with “behavioral problems” who was set to be euthanized before he was rescued by animal activist Newt (Peter Sarsgaard). She tries on Newt’s activism: donating to causes, becoming a vegan. She tries on Newt, but human intimacy seems to terrify him, and he rationalizes it with rhetorical backflips.

She’s transforming. The polite, put-upon Peggy is becoming strident, more difficult to be around. Molly Shannon must commit herself to this role, it is not going to spare anyone’s vanity, and her trust expands our perception of her capabilities as a performer. In the essence of many comedians is a void of love that we sense and desire to fill – their neediness activates our empathy, and White is skilled enough to capitalize on that. With someone who did not have that comic’s essence, coupled with the restraint to not go for the laugh in this material, it might have collapsed. This is an airy reality designed by Daniel Bradford and photographed by Tim Orr, and for White to inject such incurable sadness into it, and such affronts to decency, is like those old science class experiments where you had to build towers out of drinking straws that could somehow hold more than their own weight.

He’s not yet practiced enough as a director to consistently hold on to such a precious tonal balancing act; the movie wobbles, frequently when the pathetic Newt is around. But at its heart, once again, is a truth that gives it strength. It is a belief that people do find their way through trauma to a new self, no matter how bizarre or questionable the journey may look along the way.

We love who we love, and nothing can replace the loss of someone like that. The person we were is destroyed. Year of the Dog is about the process by which Peggy becomes her new self, and that is not easy, it is not always attractive or right. It looks like a comedy but is more often heartbreaking, despair dressed in tasteful powder blue. But it always feels like truth, because we believe she misses that dog.


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