I guess you could say that all fiction, even all art, is in some way about desire, but Mike White may be unique among screenwriters in the consistency and thoroughness with which he explores yearning and the varied forms it takes. Whether it’s the adolescent sexual fantasy that possesses Buck O’Brien in Chuck and Buck; Justine’s inchoate longing for something, anything, better than her current life in The Good Girl; or, indeed, Nacho’s dream of being a famous luchador in Nacho Libre, White’s characters are compelled — obsessively, often self-destructively driven — to pursue a goal. And so it is with Peggy Spade (Molly Shannon), the protagonist of White’s latest film and directorial debut, Year of the Dog, though her ultimate goal is perhaps the most quixotic to date.
We’ve all known a Peggy or two — nice, reasonably bright, but rather mousy women who’ve arrived at middle age and somehow never found Mr. Right (Peggies always use terms like “Mr. Right”), they ease into spinsterhood by either giving up on romance entirely or maintaining an earnest, deluded belief that the man for them is perpetually “right around the corner.” They live alone in small but cute houses with a pet (often several) that they refer to as though it were a child and that receives more of their attention, energy, and adoration than most actual children do from their mothers. Peggies are loyal workers, trustworthy confidants, and devoted, self-sacrificing aunts, sisters, and daughters, but all those people who depend on a Peggy inevitably also feel sorry for them — you can’t really be happy without a man in your life, can you, Peggy?
As Year of the Dog opens, this particular Peggy is perfectly happy, thanks very much. She and her beagle puppy, Pencil, do everything together, and their relationship is happily
codependent symbiotic. Indeed, Peggy’s closeness with Pencil could come off a little desperate, but Shannon’s affection for the dog is so sweet and genuine, and the beagle itself is so damn cute that even a non-dog-lover like myself can’t help thinking their relationship is pretty near ideal.
Naturally, Pencil winds up dead within the first 15 minutes, after he gets into a neighbor’s yard and ingests something deadly (Iams, perhaps?), and Peggy must find a way to go on without her constant companion. A possible solution arises when she gets an unexpected phone call from Newt Erdrich (Peter Sarsgaard), an earnest, sexually ambiguous guy from the vet’s office who’s seen how distraught she is and thinks maybe he can help by fixing her up with a new pooch. (Get the joke? Her surname is Spade, and his name is Newt Erdrich. … Get it? Spade and Newt Erdrich. Pretty silly, I know, but White gets away with this, as he does some other gags that could be howlers, because he never presses it; he just leaves it lying around in case the audience happens by and notices it. His direction, too, is flat and uninsistent, framing the actors simply, often centering them frontally, so that we have a subjective, one-on-one relationship with the characters.)
It would be sheer douchebaggery for me to reveal how the plot develops from there, as the great pleasure of White’s script is that it’s completely unpredictable from start to finish; he keeps faking us out by introducing plot elements that suggest conventional directions but never actually lead to them. (Though what’s even more remarkable is that the film’s trailer doesn’t ruin the surprises; almost all the scenes in it are from the first half-hour.) The story takes a number of turns, many of them absurdly loopy, but the script remains true to its own warped logic, and Shannon’s relatable feelings of pain, obsession, and triumph carry us along, aided by the liberal application of the Cat Stevens song “I Love My Dog.”
Though still best known for her over-the-top “SNL” characters like Mary Katherine Gallagher and Sally O’Mally, Shannon is surprisingly adept at playing this quieter tragicomic role. She allows us to laugh and cringe at Peggy’s excesses without ever making her entirely foolish and thus losing our sympathy. The people around her, though, are often far less likable, particularly Thomas McCarthy and Laura Dern as her smugly suburban brother and sister-in-law, the kind of frighteningly overzealous parents who can’t understand why everyone doesn’t want to settle down into domestic zombiehood. They’re only part of a superb supporting cast that also includes John C. Reilly as Peggy’s unfortunate next-door neighbor, Josh Pais as her irascible boss, and Regina King as her friend Layla, who’s both hilarious and relatable, though the character relies a little too heavily on racial stereotypes.
The film’s tone is a sort of melancholy earnestness. White insists that outsiders like Peggy be treated with dignity and understanding; indeed, his identification with the character seems almost total, at times to the detriment of the other characters, who can seem straw men set up to look fatuous or boorish next to her. It’s a movie, I think, that will divide audiences not only between animal-lovers and non-animal-lovers but also between optimists and cynics and between conformists and eccentrics. It’s also one of the least predictable and most humane — in every sense — movies I’ve seen so far this year.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Year of the Dog / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | April 24, 2007 | Comments ()