Year of the Dog
As a writer, Mike White enjoys exploring some of the weirder, darker elements of the ordinary world.  His settings tend to be in relatively ordinary places, but the people that inhabit them veer a bit off.  White's recent efforts (Nacho Libre, The School of Rock) are straightforward comedies, while his earlier films  (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl) tend to be a bit darker.  In both, White seems to tread the line between showing how quirky his characters are and mocking them. Year of the Dog is White's directorial debut.  Instead of having another director take his work and put their own spin on it, it is his chance to show his complete vision.
In this respect, Year of the Dog is a bit rough.  White seems to prefer using static camera shots.  There are only a few instances in which the camera pans.  The rest of the time, it never moves.  This means that he often has actors looking directly into the camera as if addressing another person.  So if there is a conversation between Peggy (Molly Shannon, Gray Matters, Talladega Nights) and Layla (Regina King, The Ant Bully, Miss Congeniality 2), there will be a shot of Peggy looking into the camera, followed by a shot of Layla looking into the camera, and sometimes one of both their profiles.  A little of this is okay, but after watching an entire movie, it gets old fast.  It also gives the film an unnecessarily rigid, lifeless feeling.  This is either a rookie indiscretion on White's part, or worse, his decision to film in such a manner.
The real surprise in Year of the Dog is Shannon.  Most of her post Saturday Night Live career has consisted of roles similar to the ones she played on the show - loud and obnoxious.  Shannon was never that funny.  If anything, she was annoying.  But here, she tones her shtick down significantly, similar to Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction.  The result is a surprisingly nuanced performance, that shows that Shannon may have heretofore unseen potential as a dramatic actress.  As Peggy, Shannon is one of those people who have pictures of their pet(s) plastered all over her cube.  She doesn't seem to have that many friends.  Layla is newly engaged, and most of her other human interaction is with her brother and his wife and daughter.  This leaves most of her free time to her trusted canine companion Pencil.  Pencil is her life, and it devastates her when Pencil dies prematurely.
Death is always a catalyst in movies, and here it serves to open Peggy's eyes to the world around her.  Part of what she wants is to look for companionship now that Pencil is gone.  She reaches out to her kooky neighbor (a great John C. Reilly, Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny, Talladega Nights), but falls for Valentine, a stray dog that is about to be euthanized.  Although Valentine has behavioral problems, Peggy believes that is she pours all of her love into this dog, she will regain the sense of happiness she had with Pencil.  Peggy also begins to fall for Newt (Peter Sarsgaard, Jarhead, Flightplan), who is rescues animals and is helping to train Valentine.  There is something cute yet pathetic about the way that Peggy is trying so hard to find something to latch onto.  Yet, White doesn't quite reach the level of condescension.  Instead, he goes off in an unexpected direction.  Through Newt, Peggy finds a new passion, one that begins to take over her life with disastrous results.  Year of the Dog is about Peggy's discovery of herself. It takes Pencil's death to force her to reevaluate her life to find something to fill the void.
Mongoose Rates It: Okay.
1 hour, 37 minutes, Rated PG-13 for some suggestive references.

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