"Year of the Dog"
Written and Directed by Mike White
Starring: Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, and Peter Sarsgaard
There is a lot to love about "Year of the Dog." It features well-written characters, good acting, decent cinematography, and lots of adorable canine companions — but is it a good movie? One thing is certain, it is a movie that is almost impossible to categorize. Is it a comedy or a drama? Is it worth seeing or not? I have no idea! Just for this ambiguity, "Year of the Dog" is an interesting film — it is unusual to sit through a movie and afterwards not have any idea whether you liked it or not. This also means that the film will not appeal to most moviegoers who venture to the cinema with one goal — entertainment.
The story is simple. Peggy (Molly Shannon) has a pretty uneventful and unfulfilling life as a secretary with obnoxious friends, family, and boss. The only thing she lives for is her terrier, Pencil. She does everything with the dog — they watch TV, eat, and sleep together. One day, her life is turned upside down by Pencil's mysterious death. This event leads her to befriend her neighbor, Al (John C. Reilly) and Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), a kindred spirit in that he also only trusts animals. Newt inspires her to volunteer with an animal adoption group, become a vegan, and get involved with lots of animal charities. Meanwhile, she becomes suspicious that her neighbor, Al poisoned Pencil and is to blame for his demise. The movie chugs along in an episodic fashion without any strong story arc as Peggy's life spirals out of control. The ending is not what one expects, but not in a good way — it is unsatisfying and ambiguous.
From the onset, "Year of the Dog" is instilled with a strange aura, which could be attributed to several factors. Primarily, there is very little camera movement — there are lots of still shots of static things such as bulletin boards or building exteriors. Often the camera is stationary and we observe two people conversing. One shot that was implemented frequently is a medium zoom of someone centered in the frame talking to someone else, but it almost feels like the actors are talking to the camera, not the other person. This stillness combined with the simplistic soundtrack was interesting, but not convincingly original enough to either add to or detract from the overall film.
The performances were definitely the highlight of the film. Molly Shannon gives a surprisingly muted and convincing performance as the middle-aged and sad Peggy. Thankfully, Shannon refrains from doing her crazy shtick that she became famous for on SNL, and mostly she just makes faces — lots and lots of faces. "Year of the Dog "contains countless moments where there is a shot of someone saying something mildly ridiculous followed by a cut to Shannon making a frowny face. Overall, Shannon's performance is good, but lacks the energy of her supporting cast. Performances by Laura Dern, Peter Saarsgard, and Josh Pais are the only things that make "Year of the Dog" memorable. Dern plays Peggy's sister-in-law who you find annoying, crazy, and lovable all at once. Josh Pais is brillant as Peggy's boss, Robin — there is just something so perfect about the way he says, "What were you thinking, Peggy?" As far as I am concerned, however, the real star is Sarsgaard. When his character enters the film, things instantly get 237 percent better. He uses a slightly effeminate accent and facial expressions to perfection — not going too far, but remaining comic and lovable.
In the end, "Year of the Dog" doesn't appeal to a mainstream audience. If you go to the movies expecting excitement and straightforward storytelling, you may want to steer clear, otherwise, give it a try.