If you took everything I dislike about indie filmmaking, packed it all into one tube, and gave it a good squeeze, something like Mike White’s directorial debut Year of the Dog would shoot out. It’s all there: forced quirkiness, faux profundity, an annoying musical score, overbearingly arch performances, unlikable characters you’re supposed to like—and a chorus of critics calling it fresh and original. The best I can personally come up with by way of positive response is to shrug my shoulders and say, “Eh.” I didn’t find it charming. I didn’t find it profound. I didn’t understand what the point of it all was supposed to be. And I still don’t.
That probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, since I concluded some time back that whatever wavelength Mike White is on as a writer, it’s outside my range of frequencies. All that Year of the Dog accomplished was to compound that feeling by adding White’s directorial style—what there is of it—to the mix. White has one directorial signature: He plops his characters dead center in a medium-close shot and lets one character talk to the character opposite. Then he reverses the position, and the opposite character gets to talk—or more correctly, to soliloquize. In one memorable outburst of this acting-in-a-vacuum approach, it’s not even clear at first that Molly Shannon and Regina King are at the same table. King appears to be someone Shannon is observing from across the room. It is not an approach to drama I’d recommend anyone emulate.
All that’s left of interest is the story itself. This is not a good thing. White’s film centers on Peggy (Shannon), a kind of glorified secretary in what seems to be a real estate development office. She’s basically a boring drudge whose life supposedly centers on her dog, Pencil. I say supposedly, because it’s hard to accept that anyone fixated on an animal would calmly go back to bed after watching it burrow under a fence and disappear into the night knowing that tragedy could strike. (The film never really addresses Peggy’s culpability in the dog’s death.) At any rate, with the loss of the dog, Peggy’s life collapses. Enter helpful, sexually ambiguous animal-welfare worker Newt (Peter Sarsgaard in the least interesting role of his career) who hooks Peggy up with a new dog. This new pet, however, is everything it shouldn’t be: an abused German shepherd with an attitude so bad and so unpredictably vicious that his fate is as predictable as his vicious outbursts aren’t. All of this will eventually lead to Peggy becoming a wild-eyed vegan poster child for PETA. It doesn’t really matter how you feel about veganism or PETA to quickly realize that Peggy is simply unhinged. She forges her boss’s signature on checks to make sizable donations to animal rights’ groups, wildly interferes with her annoying sister-in-law’s child-raising beliefs, adopts 15 dogs she can neither control nor care for, and spirals ever more out of control.
It’s rarely funny, mostly depressing and whatever it’s trying to say is too vague to matter. Apparently, Peggy is supposed to be an admirable character, but I don’t see it. Her impulses may be sound, but her approach to everything isn’t. She’s not likeable (nobody in the film is likeable). She’s not cute. She’s not charming. She’s also not tragic—pathetic is nearer the mark. Despite everything, her actions are self-centered from first to last. And I don’t think this is what White meant to convey. If it is, then he succeeded in creating a downer of a movie about a deluded character it’s hard to care about. If, as seems to be the case, he intended to create a portrait of a woman finally finding her true place in the world, he’s failed dismally. Either way, he ends up with a pointlessly depressing movie about people you wouldn’t want to know in real life. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive references.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke