If you know anything about PETA, then you know that they’re infamous for going too far. They’ve taken a good idea, caring about animals, and stretched it to an extreme so bizarre they’ve become even worse than they people they’re fighting against. Most good ideas are that way. They’re only good ideas as long as you don’t overdo it. Good idea: giving your dog a bath. Bad idea: getting your dog dry cleaned. Anyone else just have an ‘Animaniacs’ flashback? Sorry, the point is that even a good thing becomes a bad thing when there’s too much of it.
Year of the Dog is about a woman who takes a good idea too far. It’s the story of Peggy (Molly Shannon), a quiet, lonely person slipping slowly into the frothy madness of fanaticism. In this case, she becomes obsessed with helping animals but it could have just as easily been religion or sex or politics or alcohol or any number of things. Things start to fall apart for Peggy when she loses the only person in her life she can count on, her incredibly sweet Beagle named Pencil. Pencil’s demise is shot brilliantly by director Mike White, he lingers over their relationship together, then stages a eerily realistic and heartbreaking late night in which Pencil asks to be let out and then simply never comes back.
Peggy is devastated and no one seems to care. Her co-workers are busy with their own problems, her brother and his wife only want to talk about their kids, and as for real friends Pencil was her only one. As she says later in the film, Peggy has been constantly disappointed by people throughout her life, she’s begun to get used to it. However that doesn’t mean she can handle things alone. The death of her beloved pup sends Peggy on a quest to find someone or something to replace him. She tries people, and the film follows her as she suffers more human disappointments. Desperate she latches on to animals, the only thing that’s ever provided her with any companionship, and soon she’s taken her obsession with critters so far that it becomes its a form of sickness and madness.
It’s that madness that makes the movie fall apart. Peggy is sympathetic as a lonely, heartbroken woman reaching out to anyone and anything for friendship. Molly Shannon is good, surprisingly good in this part of the film. But as she takes her obsession with animal rights activism further and further, she becomes completely unhinged not just from reality, but from the audience. Year of the Dog ceases to be a quiet film about loneliness and morphs into a study in fanaticism, but writer/director Mike White continues to shoot it as if we’re smack dab in the middle of a romantic comedy. The tone doesn’t fit what’s happening on screen, and Peggy steps so far outside the lines of acceptability that it becomes impossible to care about her, much less root for her.
There are two possibilities here. Either Mike White is one of the aforementioned PETA wackos and mistakenly believed his audience would think it alright for Peggy to mentally scar children, steal from her job, and attempt murder or he simply thinks it’s cute to make a movie about a lunatic while treating her as if she’s some lovable heroine. It’s not funny though and Peggy needs to be committed not lauded for ruining her life in the name of some misguided, sad vision. The frightening thing here is that Year of the Dog actually presents a pretty realistic portrayal of where fanatics come from. If you’ve ever wondered where organizations like PETA, Al Queda, and The 700 Club find members then here’s the answer.