Year of the Dog (2007)

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Year of the Dog
Dir. Mike White
Premiered at Sundance January 20, 2007

Spoiler warning.

Here’s a weird confession: when I was in middle school, my idol was a local screenwriter named Mike White. Like me, White was from Pasadena, and while my hometown wasn’t exactly off the beaten path, it meant a lot to me to see a fellow native succeed in television and film. He was a writer for the terrific TV series Freaks and Geeks as well as the social thriller Chuck & Buck, and first became known to me as the writer of Jake Kasdan’s underrated admissions comedy Orange County, which was briefly my favorite movie. He then moved on to writing School of Rock, Cracking Up, whatever. Inexplicably, he is also one of the credited writers on this year’s The Emoji Movie. You win some, you lose some. Badly.

But until this year, White has only ever directed one film: 2007’s little-seen Year of the Dog. And despite its deeply troublesome flaws, it is very much in keeping with his screenplays. Most of his writing has been about people who take things too far, and in Year of the Dog, that person is Peggy (Molly Shannon), a spinster/office drone whose life falls apart after her beagle Pencil dies from eating something toxic, suspecting that her hunting-enthusiast neighbor (John C. Reilly) is somehow responsible.

Peggy’s efforts to find a new companion lead her into the orbit of ASPCA volunteer Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), whose concern for animal welfare inspires her to become a vegan. But it’s Mike White, so veganism is the tip of the iceberg, betraying the trust of her best friend (Regina King), family (Laura Dern and Thomas McCarthy), and boss (Josh Pais, last seen just a day earlier as a pervy gynecologist in Teeth) as her newfound passion veers into the reckless, the unethical, and the criminal. Every time it looks like she may realize that there’s something missing in her life more than a dog, she instead doubles down, and it’s terrifying.

Mike White the screenwriter gets this. Mike White the director doesn’t. Year of the Dog’s theatrical trailer presents the film as a feel-good rom-com. In reality, its trajectory is more like Chuck & Buck than School of Rock, but you could be forgiven for not realizing that until deep into its 93-minute runtime, as the overall aesthetic is stereotypically Sundance: sunny, pastel, overreliant on musical cues– it even borrows a number from Napoleon Dynamite.

Much like in Teeth, the clash between story and tone could be forgiven as a beginner’s mistake. But the sudden change of direction at the movie’s end can’t. Up to this point, it’s so clear where we’re headed that the third act is truly baffling. The closest analogy I can think of is 2014’s Let’s Be Cops, a critically reviled frathouse comedy about two civilians who decide to impersonate police officers and abuse the privileges thereof. It starts like a cautionary tale, but instead of having the characters face the consequences of their actions, or go into antihero mode and shamefully get away, the movie avoids any and all repercussions, pretends that nothing wrong was done, ends with a moral of “follow your dream.”

It appears that Let’s Be Cops was following a trail already blazed by Year of the Dog: after traumatizing her niece, potentially breaking up her best friend’s engagement, drunkenly destroying her sister-in-law’s furs, embezzling from her company, and breaking into her neighbor’s house to attack him with a hunting knife, Peggy not only gets away with everything, no questions asked, but is the hero of the movie, welcomed back to her place of work, only to leave and pursue her true calling of animal rights activism. The only explanation I can think of is that White started writing a screenplay about obsession, started researching PETA and whatnot for reference, went native, and changed the ending without thinking about the implications. It’s a surprisingly dunderheaded move from such a gifted guy.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Peggy and Al (Reilly) begin the film as strangers despite living next door to each other for what appears to be years. Layla (King) references going to see the latest Spider-Man (or was it Superman?), and ruins her favorite designer velour sweatsuit. One of Peggy’s co-workers (Craig Cackowski) mentions having eaten a croissanwich.

How Did It Do?
If you’ve seen Year of the Dog and think I’m an asshole, you’re in good company: the movie earned a 70% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. But you probably didn’t see it, because it was released into just 152 theaters and grossed $1.6 million. Mike White, a true screenwriter-auteur working equally in film and television, turned his efforts to the latter to create his most acclaimed series, HBO’s Enlightened. Since the series’ cancellation, he has returned to film, writing the script for this year’s Beatriz at Dinner, the self-styled “first great film of the Trump era,” and now directing his second feature, “Brad’s Status.”

Next Time: Waitress

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