Peggy Spade, the hapless dog-lover at the center of Year of the Dog, is at once familiar and satirical. She is more inoffensive than genuinely likeable, perhaps, but she is a mainstay of office culture everywhere. An executive assistant to an arrogant corporate hack, Peggy is the type who brings donuts for her coworkers and dutifully lends a sympathetic ear to all their problems. She is single, sad-eyed and maybe just a bit drab.
And the love of her life, the center of her universe, is her pet. In this case, the pet is a beagle named Pencil. One evening the pooch wanders off and dies after getting into some sort of poison, and Peggy's world is tossed upside-down.
As portrayed by Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon, Peggy is a potent seriocomic creation. She's generally sympathetic, but also has a surly side just clawing to be let loose. You can hardly blame her for feeling stifled. Her primary lot in life appears to be as sounding board for self-involved family and friends, from a nebbishy boss (Josh Pais), and overbearing best friend (Regina King) to her Yuppified brother and sister-in-law (Tom McCarthy and Laura Dern). When it's Peggy's turn to grieve, however, no one seems capable of showing her genuine empathy.
Peggy's despair spirals downward. A well-meaning neighbor (John C. Reilly) takes her out to dinner, but any potential romance is quashed once she surmises that his garage likely housed the poison that took poor Pencil's life. There is a glimmer of hope when Peggy meets Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), a kindly dog trainer who gives her a troubled German Shepherd named Valentine. Newt shares Peggy's love for canines, but he's more than a little sexually ambiguous, telling her of a recent dream he had in which he was raped by a pair of bull mastiffs. At least Newt inspires Peggy to become a vegan. She sees it as a powerful step toward self-actualization. "It's nice to have a word that can describe you. I've never had that before," Peggy says.
Writer-director Mike White strikes a curious balance between pathos and satire. There is no denying Peggy has a soft heart, but her devotion to doggies teeters on zealotry. With Pencil's loss making it clearer that ever before that people are a lot more disappointing, Peggy is increasingly drawn toward the world of animal activism.
The picture marks the directorial debut for White, an interesting screenwriter whose credits include The Good Girl, The School of Rock and the underrated Chuck & Buck. He proves to have a strong sense of vision, albeit one that is occasionally offputting. The isolation and self-absorption of White's characters are augmented by their placement in the center of the frame, a scheme that often allows them to be literally overwhelmed by their surroundings. In addition, the audience is boxed into Peggy's perspective through a surfeit of point-of-view shots. The visual pattern can be a bit ponderous, but it is by design, and it gives Year of the Dog an edgy claustrophobia reminiscent of Todd Solondz (Happiness, Welcome to the Dollhouse).
White also elicits some wonderful performances. Pais and Dern make the most of their limited appearances. Sarsgaard is a solid dramatic actor, but here he reveals a gift for creepy comedy. And Shannon proves she doesn't have to do pratfalls to convey vulnerability.
Presented in widescreen 1.85:1 and enhanced for 16x9 televisions, Year of the Dog boasts the first-rate picture quality you would expect from a new movie.
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is crisp and clean, but this dialogue-driven film doesn't necessarily test the system. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Paramount packs a nice diversity of extras. A feature-length commentary with White and Shannon is great fun. The two are friends and it comes through in their freewheeling, humorous remarks. White mentions that the film's visual scheme was heavily influenced by the classic Errol Morris documentary Gates of Heaven. Also fun is Moviefone Unscripted with Molly Shannon and Mike White, a six-minute, 46-second gabfest in which the two ask each other questions.
A Special Breed of Comedy: The Making of Year of the Dog (16:15) is a well-crafted featurette with the usual cast and crew interviews. Special Animal Unit is a three-minute, 40-second piece that touches on the rigors of filming with dogs and their trainers. Mildly amusing, if not particularly informative, are two short profiles: Being Molly Shannon (4:07) and Mike White Unleashed (4:18).
There are seven deleted scenes and one extended scene that clock in for an aggregate running time of nearly 12 minutes. You can view the scenes separately or opt for the "play all" function. White provides optional commentary. Of less interest is a quirky insert reel (1:45), the obligatory gag reel (3:02) and previews of Blades of Glory and Next.
Mike White's Year of the Dog is a strange mutt, but it's irresistible in its way. The movie bites when you think it's about to get cuddly, and it curls up in your lap when you suspect it's going in for the kill. You've got to credit any flick that can keep you that off balance.