There are dog people and then there are dog people. As the lonely secretary Peggy in the new comedy Year of the Dog, Molly Shannon gets to play both: In the course of a few traumatic months, she crosses the line from being one of those pose-for-cheesy-photos-with-your-pet types to one of those crazy-old-ladies-with-a-urine-soaked-floor types. Deceptively innocuous and pleasant, screenwriter Mike White's directorial debut is one of those drab, unassuming little indie movies that manages to sneak up on you especially if you've ever loved and lost a pet.
Part workplace comedy, part psychosexual character study, the film charts Peggy's obsessive mourning period after her beloved beagle Pencil dies. She bounces like a pinball off the variously unsupportive people who surround her: Her meathead good-ol'-boy neighbor (John C. Reilly), her nebbish boss (Josh Pais), her dying-to-get-married best friend (Regina King), her yuppie brother-in-law and his hilariously paranoid wife (Tom McCarthy and Laura Dern). She ends up in the arms of the appropriately named Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), a slithery veterinarian who may or may not have an interest in her as anything other than a potential caretaker for German shepherds with anger management problems.
King of the awkward silence, White writes characters who speak in simple, clipped sentences and use colorless language. You're never quite sure if they're withdrawn because they have a shocking, tragic past to repress, or if it's because they have absolutely nothing to reveal. In the stalker comedy Chuck & Buck, it was the former; in the case of Jennifer Aniston's checkout clerk in The Good Girl, it was most definitely the latter. Year of the Dog keeps you wondering about Peggy right up until its final scene.
As much as the film is about the unconditional love of four-legged friends, there's a weirder theme lurking just under its surface: the idea of owning a pet as a substitute for a real sex life. If the title Must Love Dogs wasn't already taken, it would've been perfect here: Constantly Peggy is being put upon, hit upon or asked to do menial favors by her oversexed friends, all of whom need her to keep an eye on their cheating boyfriends, or watch their kids while they have a "hot weekend" away from home.
White's got a ways to go as a director before he can coax out the symbolism inherent in his writing. But at least he doesn't pander or condescend to his characters the way some other directors have with his scripts. His bland style head-on, symmetrical shots, with the actors facing the camera ends up being oddly direct instead of indie-hipster snide. And in Shannon he has an actor who was born to be his blank-slate muse: Even the way she regards a donut is funny, but when she weeps in her car after Pencil dies, the severity of the moment catches you off-guard. She may not be an "articulate person," as she puts it, but she provides Year of the Dog with its strange, wounded soul.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.