By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com
Year of the Dog, 2007 (1/2 *)
A PORTRAIT OF MENTAL ILLNESS BROUGHT TO THE FORE BY THE DEATH OF A LUMP OF A DOG NAMED “PENCIL,” The Year of the Dog stars Molly Shannon as Peggy, a drear crackpot, a bore with no life beyond office job and needy hound, a life wasted away between grande Starbucks. Writer-director Mike White, who wrote Chuck & Buck and starred as its gay stalker with reveries (and arias) of prehensile sexual exploration, expanded on his statement that his directorial debut is a “comedy that’s not funny” to Filmmaker magazine, “I find it funny, but it plays at such a deadpan level for so much of it that I feel like some of the comedy is missed” Or missing, perhaps? “And there are also so many minor keys in it. My preference for comedy is something that’s played so straight that, in a way, you’re wrong-footed. I think it’s a comedy; it definitely plays for laughs, but it plays with the audience. As somebody who sees a lot of movies, when something’s not pre-digested, it’s very pleasant because you’re like, ‘I don’t exactly know how to take this.’
Interminable, morally and psychologically incoherent, it is a soulless bore. Brightly lit, bluntly framed and criminally dim, The Year of the Dog is Todd Solondz light, as infuriating as a stone in a shoe on a 90 minute walk somewhere you wouldn’t want to go. This is a failure worthy of sustained contumely. It seems to go on for hours. Dog is more tedious than it is skin-crawling; it’s the kind of movie you’d expect the people who don’t just walk out would light up the room with the soft blue glow of their cell phones. You miss the steady yet soulful hand of director Richard Linklater on White’s script for School of Rock.
White’s convinced Shannon to look beyond her age, weeping through creases and wrinkles and bulging veins at her temples, flashing her big teeth and riotous freckles like an angry, lost woman of 50. There is an absurdism only just shy of snark in the pastel interiors of offices and apartments, and most conversations are shot in head-on medium close-ups, with 180 degree reverse angles on the other person. White also places his actors where they have to squint into the sun. (With this tic, if any of his characters were Asian, White would be accused of racism.) The general glow of the lighting, however, by cinematographer Tim Orr (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Raising Victor Vargas) is inspired, narcotic-bright, capturing the flat blue light under incessant haze of Southern California somewhere past the 10 and 101 between Xanax and Celexa. Even with the genuine empathy of actors like Peter Sarsgard and John C. O’Reilly is vanquished by intentionally tepid, wormy performances. (Laura Dern is shrill in a way I’d probably be as well if this ass were my sister-in-law.)
After the sudden death of Pencil, Peggy cracks up. “He had a really unique personality,” she says of her dead dog, admittedly cute but also pretty much a throw pillow. She tries to date neighbor Al (O’Reilly), a hunter and knife collector, and they share a scene which includes a long, gibberish answer to “Were you ever married?” that could have been followed by “Are you a virgin?” and “Did you ever finish kindergarten?” Peggy befriends dog trainer Sarsgard, a celibate, apparently bisexual dog trainer named Newt who indicates he was sexually abused as a child in a religious cult. (In a turn of desperate erotomania, she brags on a nonexistent relationship with Newt; her equally annoying friends reassure her, “Even retarded, crippled people get married.”)
Peggy’s journey begins as she by annoys friends and co-workers with questions like, “Do you any soy milk?” and quickly becomes a child-abusing, vicious-dog-enabling, horror-show naïf, a vegan-animal rights maniac, embezzling hundreds of dollars of corporate cash on behalf of animal rescue groups. Peggy’s consummate stupidity and Shannon’s dreary, self-pitying performance makes for a wearying slog. The costume design is consistent with White’s hum of disdain. Peggy’s got one get-up with a crucifix necklace above white coveralls that best demonstrates the sartorial clues that shriek and wail a single sustained sentence: “Run away!”
Tragically, White chose not to go the Chuck & Buck direction and turn this earnest bore into a bomb-throwing activist. (Perhaps early drafts trafficked in mass murder.) He makes the impulse to become part of PETA (who cleared the use of their trademark) and other animal rights groups seem naïve, misguided, needy, and deeply selfish, so why not go whole hog, not chicken out, and make her an incendiary terrorist as well? (The word “Holocaust” is tossed about, but for White, as he notes, “joke” is defined as “rhetorical provocation.”)
There is an image of a dirt-streaked Chevy crammed with fifteen dogs saved from euthanasia that amuses, and the scene afterward, as “Joan of Echo Park” watches helplessly as they demolish her home has energy. But all you really want for Peggy is to see her jailed, silenced, reviled and demonized on trash television. “I wish I was a more articulate person,” she whines. I wish you would just shut up.