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Year of the Dog (2007)

Paramount Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 8/28/2007

All Ratings out of
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 8/23/2007

While it's not a universal constant, it's not unusual to read/hear a biography of a comedian/funny person and learn that they have a dark side or have lived a sad life. It's not that much of a leap to assume that many of these performers use comedy to cover their wounds. Typically, this part of the person doesn't come out in their work (although Louis Anderson and Richard Jeni would be two exceptions). Mike White is one of the funniest screenwriters working today, having written School of Rock, Orange County, and Nacho Libre. But, White certainly brings things down a notch (or three) with his directorial debut Year of the Dog. I have no idea is White is one of those funny people who is actually a sad person, but this is certainly a sad movie.

Molly Shannon stars in Year of the Dog as Peggy, a woman who most people would probably describe as boring. She works as a secretary and only has one friend at work, Layla (Regina King). She occasionally visits her brother, Pier (Thomas McCarthy), and his wife, Bret (Laura Dern), but she spends most of her time with her dog, Pencil, who is her best friend. They go to the park together, watch TV together, and sleep together. One night, Pencil goes out to use the bathroom and eats something poisonous, and a few hours later, he dies. This event truly devastates Peggy. Those around her try to comfort her, but they can't understand the depths of her despair. Peggy then meets Newt Erdrich (Peter Sarsgaard), a man who helps to rescue animals. Newt helps Peggy get a new dog, and seeing his work inspires her to learn more about helping animals.

Through reading the press material, I knew that Year of the Dog was about a woman whose dog dies. Because of this very sad sounding premise, I was a little hesitant about watching the film. Little did I know that the dog's death would be the portion of the film which was easiest to digest.

Year of the Dog can be viewed as a film which is broken into smaller segments, each of which trace a portion of Peggy's story arc. The first portion of the movie introduces us to Peggy and Pencil and then Pencil dies. These scenes are heart-wrenching (mostly due to the fact that the dog who plays Pencil is so incredibly cute), and we truly feel for Peggy. Then, we see Peggy trying to adjust to life without Pencil and we still feel sorry for her, even if some in the audience may wonder why Peggy doesn't place more value in human relationships. Then, around the 30-minute mark, Peggy's character begins to undergo a metamorphosis and this is the point where the film will begin to divide the audience. I don't want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that Peggy really gets heavily involved in saving animals. She becomes a vegan and begins to learn about animal testing. This mindset begins to weigh on her life and she takes things to an extreme.

Writer/director Mike White really steps back from the movie and he's shot Year of the Dog almost like a documentary. The movie never lets us too far inside Peggy's mind to know exactly what she's thinking. Thus, it's up to the viewer to decide what they think about Peggy. On the one hand, the movie could be pushing a pro-vegan, protect-the-animals agenda on the audience. On the other hand, once Peggy enters this part of her life, she's not exactly the most stable person, thus she could easily be viewed as a wacko who's taken a noble idea too far. Personally, I felt that the former was true. To me, the movie got lost in a message about saving animals and veered away from the story. Either way, many viewers are going to have a negative reaction to the film as a whole, or a negative reaction to Peggy.

No matter how you slice it, Year of the Dog is a depressing film. Don't believe a word of the DVD box which wants to sell the movie as a comedy. Even if viewed as a dark comedy, the result is still the same -- this is a drama. The movie has quirky characters, but they aren't really funny and it's the brooding subject matter which dominates the film. White has wandered into dramatic territory before with The Good Girl, but as depressing as that movie was, it did have some comic relief (supplied by the character which White himself played). No one in Year of the Dog funny. The Regina King character is supposed to be funny, but her situation is just as tragic as Peggy's. Obviously, Molly Shannon is known as a comedic actress, but she plays it totally straight here, even going as far as to play the second-half of the film without (visible) makeup.

Yes, Mike White, who played the ignorant English teacher in Orange County, has really thrown us a curveball with Year of the Dog. The movie certainly has an interesting premise. We watch a woman deal with a personal tragedy and due to the fact that she's rejected by humans, she bonds with animals. White uses this unique idea to his advantage, and he's created a story which is unpredictable. But, it's also too bleak for its own good. Peggy goes from being a pitiful person to someone who most viewers won't like or understand. Year of the Dog showed some promise, but it needs to go back to the pound.

Year of the Dog rolls over on DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source material. The colors look fine, although some scenes look slightly blanched. White has shot the film in a nearly verite style, so the lighting is well-balanced and the scenes are never too bright or too dark. I noted some mild video noise in a few shots, but otherwise the transfer looked fine. The DVD has a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are fine, especially when they feature dogs barking on either side of the screen. The movie's musical score plays well through the surround channels.

The Year of the Dog DVD contains several extras. We start with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from writer/director Mike White and star Molly Shannon. This is a solid talk as they do a good job of making scene-specific comments. While not overly talkative, White has a lot to say about the actors and locations. As she's in nearly every scene, Shannon adds a great deal about her performance. "A Special Breed of Comedy: The Making of Year of the Dog" (16 minutes) features a nice array of behind the scenes footage and comments from the cast and crew. White describes the origin of the story and the actors talk about their characters. Shannon discusses her performance in "Being Molly Shannon" (4 minutes). White talks about his directorial debut with "Mike White Unleashed" (4 minutes). The dog trainers are profiled in "Special Animal Unit" (4 minutes). The DVD contains 7 DELETED SCENES which run about 12 minutes and can be viewed with commentary by White. In an odd feature which I've never seen before, we get two minutes of second unit quick shots in "Insert Reel". There is a 3-minute GAG REEL. Finally, in "Moviefone Unscripted with Molly Shannon and Mike White" (7 minutes) the director and star ask each other questions.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long