Here is my review from the May 7, 2007 issue of The American Conservative:
"The Year of the Dog," with Saturday Night Live veteran Molly Shannon as a spinster secretary looking for love, sounds like just another romantic comedy, such as "The Truth about Cats and Dogs" or "Must Love Dogs." Yet, this sympathetic portrayal of the making of an animal rights activist / pest turns out to be one of the odder and more memorable movies of the year so far.
In recent years, the typical
Hollywoodfilmmaker's career path has been first to write screenplays for others, and then move on to directing. Not every verbalist, however, is an equally adept visualist. First time director Mike White, screenwriter of "School of Rock" and "The Good Girl," is so unimaginative with images -- he mostly just plunks his actors dead center in the frame and has them stare goggle-eyed into the camera -- that his little quasi-comedy stumbles into a neo-Egyptian monumentality.
Fortunately, White has a strong cast, anchored by the disconcertingly intense
Shannon, the diva of discomfort. Her Peggy is Shannon's SNL signature character Mary Katharine Gallagher, the Catholic schoolgirl with Asperger's Syndrome, grown a quarter century older and sadder, but no wiser. Now 42, Shannonplays awkward Peggy without makeup, every wrinkle in her delicate Irish skin exposed by the fluorescent office lighting.
Peggy's only friend besides her beagle Pencil is her fellow secretary, the contrastingly outgoing Layla (a scene-stealing Regina King, who was Cuba Gooding Jr.'s wife in "Jerry Maguire"). While black-white masculine friendships are far more common in cop movies and commercials than in daily life, Peggy and Layla's closeness is realistic: pink-collar working women enjoy the warmest interracial bonds of any class. Her black pal is conducting a publicly passionate affair with the office lothario, while Peggy displays the traditional Hibernian uneasiness over sex.
"The Year of the Dog" then introduces two disparate men into her life to make the point, a bit formulaically, that sexual and social attraction are often at odds. The older and less hormone-driven we get, the harder it is to find somebody of the opposite sex who fits the rut we've dug for ourselves.
One night, Peggy's beloved beagle gets into her neighbor's yard, eats some snail poison, and dies. To cheer her up, the construction worker next door, played by the currently omnipresent regular guy character actor John C. Reilly (Will Ferrell's sidekick in "Talladega Nights"), invites her out to dinner. Layla is ecstatic that Peggy finally has a date. Unfortunately, he turns out to love hunting, which Peggy can't abide.
Then, a handsome but effeminate man from the animal shelter offers her a vicious German shepherd who is otherwise doomed to be put down. A vegan, he instructs Peggy in the horrors of factory farms, and soon she's in love. Peter Sarsgaard, who normally plays strong, silent types like the sniper in "Jarhead" and
Chuck Lane, the long-suffering editor of Marty Peretz's New Republic, in "Shattered Glass," portrays the pet person as a little too obviously gay -- to everybody except Peggy, whose heart gets broken.
With men letting her down, she turns even more to dogs for consolation, becoming a strident PETA-style activist. Strikingly, the script shows her losing the arguments she starts. Peggy assumes, though, as most people do, that she gets out-debated not because she's wrong, but because she's not glib enough.
She forges her boss's signature on a check to a farm animal rescue charity, adopts 15 dogs off death row at the pound, and ruins the fur coats of her insufferable sister-in-law (Laura Dern). Peggy is on the path to being a crazy old lady with too many pets in her squalid house, but "The Year of the Dog" asks whether being an animal addict is worse than sane loneliness.
PETA fanatics are the one sort of progressive that everybody loves to look down upon. After Dutch immigration restrictionist Pim Fortuyn was gunned down in 2002, the European center-left establishment immediately proclaimed (wrongly, as it turned out) that their vilification of anti-immigrationists had nothing to do with Fortuyn's murder. The assassin was just some animal rights loony!
And yet, the animal rights cause is likely to triumph partially. As the world gets richer, the worst abuses of factory farming will become less tolerable. Moreover, while we deplore Koreans' taste for dog, hardheaded Paul Johnson has suggested that our descendents won't understand how we complacently devoured the comparably intelligent pig. Too bad they're so tasty …
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive references.