I'm not sure which baffles me more: that the wildly gifted and inventive writer Mike (School of Rock) White is behind this inert cinematic sleep aid, or that so many critics have given it glowing reviews. This is one of the most confounding films I've ever seen.
White's directorial debut, Year of the Dog, is billed as a comedy, but it would be every bit as accurate to categorize it as science fiction or a World War II drama. It is simply not a funny film. It stars a lot of people who've been funny someplace else - Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, Josh Pais and Laura Dern, for example - but they are not funny here.
The story concerns Peggy Spade, a fortysomething administrative assistant (Shannon) who gets along well enough with her coworkers and her brother's family but lives for the time she spends with her pet beagle, Pencil. This is the central relationship in her life. People, we are led to understand, have disappointed her too many times. Pencil, on the other hand, has always been there for her.
At least until the fateful night when he sneaks off into a nearby garage, nibbles on a sack of pestkiller and collapses. Shannon instinctively knows something is wrong when she wakes the next morning to find the dog not lying beside her. She knocks at the door of her neighbor (Reilly) - who is, unsurprisingly, a total stranger to her - and requests permission to search his yard. Horrified, she scoops up the barely breathing beagle and races to the vet. Alas, it's too late.
And with that, Shannon's world crumbles. Every-thing that has given her real joy is gone, and there is nothing for her to do but embark on movie history's dullest journey of self-discovery. First she goes on an ill-fated date with Reilly. Things go well enough until they wind up back at his place, and Shannon learns he's a hunter. His collection of knives displayed behind glass seems to concern her less than the fact that he accidentally shot his dog years before while chasing game.
Next, she gets a call from a fellow who works in the vet's office. Peter Sarsgaard costars as Newt, a celibate vegan who informs Shannon just seconds before she puts the moves on him that he was once violated by a pair of bull mastiffs. It's only after their first (and last) kiss that he lets her know he's not on the market. He does fix her up with a replacement pooch, however - a German shepherd with what he ominously refers to as "behavioral issues" and roughly 20 minutes of screen time to live. This is a picture with a substantial doggie body count.
By this time, something in Peggy has snapped. She goes vegan. She starts nagging coworkers into adopting pets. She forges her boss' name on checks she mails to animal advocacy groups. She traumatizes her young niece by taking her to a slaughterhouse, and she disposes of her sister-in-law's fur collection. At the height of her breakdown, Peggy loads 15 shelter dogs slated to be euthanized into her car and drives them home. When her neighbor mentions the resulting noise and stench - not to mention that he hasn't been able to sleep for a week - she slams the door in his face.
Her journey isn't quite complete, but let us leave Peggy here, because you get the idea - and, well, neither she nor her journey get a whole lot more riveting. Shannon does what she can with the role. But White doesn't give her much to work with, and she isn't enough of an actress to create something from practically nothing. Peggy and the rest of the film's characters are a mystifying hodgepodge of indie-ready signifiers. She's the wallflower destined to bloom late. Dern's the compulsive, controlling WASP wife. Pais is yet another number cruncher so wrapped up in his work he comes to the office on Christmas. Sarsgaard is . . . well, he's just creepy. They're like castoffs White picked up at a Todd Solondz yard sale.
Holy Fast Food Nation, Batman! Can't anybody make a decent message movie anymore? The writer-director's heart is in the right place, and the story clearly has personal resonance for him. (White is a vegan, and the loss of a beloved pet provided the impetus for this script.) The thing is, we all love animals. Who isn't opposed to their mistreatment? The problem here isn't the message; it's the movie. White's latest is so relentlessly fun-free, even the most ardent animal rights activists will sit up and beg to be put out of their misery.