I never thought I would see a movie with Molly Shannon in it that would get praise for acting. I never thought Molly Shannon could be in a film that she wasn’t instantly the worst thing about the movie. I guess that’s what I get for generalizing because, while Year of the Dog has its share of problems, Shannon isn’t one of them.
The human-animal dynamic can be a strange thing. Animals don’t understand us. They have their own ways. Yet sometimes they can be our best friend in the whole world, offering more solace than our human friends. This is the life Peggy (Shannon) lives. Nobody understands her better than her dog Pencil. When he suddenly dies from an accidental poisoning, Peggy is devastated, leaving her alone to seek some sort of replacement, which leads to her developing an interest in animal rights, becoming a vegan, and eventually just falling off the cliffs of sanity and becoming a complete nutter.
Watching Year of the Dog, I was trying to figure out what writer/director Mike White was attempting to accomplish as Peggy’s sanity rapidly declined to the point where she had filled her house with dogs, taken her niece to an egg farm to see how chickens are treated, and forged her boss’s name on checks to animal sanctuaries. Did he really want to present animal rights people as such nutters? Were we supposed to feel bad for a character that had left sympathy behind halfway through the picture?
Then it dawned on me – White was creating an extended metaphor for the need for balance, and the downside of letting an obsession take over. Sadly, I was wrong. By movie’s end there was no moralistic message about obsession, balance, or anything else. Peggy loves animals, and she takes that love to such an extreme no sane person really can support her means anymore. Meanwhile, we never see Peggy long enough with any animal to feel like she builds a rapport with them either. The first ten minutes show why Peggy and Pencil are a perfect pair, but nothing afterwards lives up to that, despite having plenty of time to do so.
Along with a story that quickly moves Peggy beyond sympathy, the cinematic style of the picture goes a long way to create isolation between Peggy and the rest of the world. White overuses static, straight on camera shots that look straight at the character and has the character looking at the camera in return. The result is a movie that could easily have been filmed with no more than one actor on set most of the time. There’s very little connection between Peggy and anyone else she encounters, and that’s a problem. Not only does the audience not connect with Peggy, but it removes her even more from what most people would consider reality.
Despite the camera style and the outlandish story, there is actually some decent acting in Year of the Dog. Peter Sarsgaard continues his trend of creating an excellent character by underplaying emotion, and John C. Reilly is a surprise for a movie of this caliber. Even Molly Shannon is tolerable, which is saying something. Typically just seeing her in something makes me want to turn the television off, but that’s not the case here. It’s just a shame the character offered to the actress, along with the story and the camera work, undermine what could have been a powerful performance and a once in a lifetime opportunity for Shannon.
As I mentioned previously, I really tried to figure out what writer/director Mike White was attempting to accomplish with Year of the Dog. The movie’s just as much a departure for White, who penned Nacho Libre and School of Rock, as it is for Shannon. Thanks to the DVD bonus materials, we get a better feeling for what White was trying to create with this movie. Unfortunately it becomes rather clear he missed the mark entirely.
Year of the Dog’s inspiration came from a stray cat that White inadvertently adopted with his house. The cat ended up dying in White’s arms on Christmas day, and affected him more deeply than he expected. He created the movie as a catharsis for that event, as he points out repeatedly on the DVD’s bonus materials, including a short featurette focused solely on White. His intent: to explore the grief that comes from losing an animal. Unfortunately he doesn’t realize that he keeps the character of Peggy too far removed from the audience and the other characters.
White tries to point out in the commentary and in “A Special Breed of Comedy: The Making of Year of the Dog”, how closely connected Peggy is with her co-workers and the rest of the world at the beginning of the film, but the movie doesn’t support that. Even at the beginning she’s a bit stand-offish, and her behavior is a big strange. White hoped that that connection would hold through Peggy’s breakdown, so the audience didn’t think she was a complete freak, but again, without that initial connection, the character just turns into a complete nutter with no connection to reality.
What’s really a shame is that a few of the deleted scenes on the disc might have helped with this problem of connection. Among the over-ten-minutes of deleted material is a scene where Peggy explains how she feels responsible for Pencil’s death, and another scene that helps re-establish a relationship Peggy has with Peter Sarsgaard’s character. White offers commentary throughout the deleted material, but it gives a little rationalization for the cuts, but not enough to justify the end effect removing this material has on the final product.
Despite the heavy nature of the story, there was some fun to be had on set, as evidenced by the gag reel. Surprisingly, the reel is only about three minutes long and only about half of it is due to animal behavior. I would have expected a lot more hilarity to come from the animals, but I guess having a ton of handlers and trainers around, as evidenced by “Special Animal Unit,” which gives a quick look at handling the large amounts of animals on set.
Probably the best of the bonus materials is the short featurette “Being Molly Shannon,” which gives the actress the opportunity to talk about taking on this role as opposed to the broad comedy she’s typically involved in. Sadly, like a lot of other things, that same information is repeated in the commentary as well as a MovieFone interview between Shannon and White, making a lot of the information repetitive after a while.
Year of the Dog surprised me with the acting ability of Molly Shannon, but let me down in just about every other way. Going a step further on DVD, the disc is repetitive and really shows that the filmmaker missed his own mark. Despite his intentions, Peggy isn’t a sympathetic character and people aren’t fully going to understand her plight. Instead of a cathartic story about losing a close animal friend, the movie that could have been an interesting commentary on obsession just shows how wacked out animal rights people can be, devoid of any ground in reality.