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Minding Animals:
Awareness, Emotions, and Heart
by Marc Bekoff
(Paperback from Amazon)
. "Year of the Dog"

As to what to expect in a movie with a title like this, no disappointment is in store for the dog owner, animal lover or animal rights activist. Of course, when sensibilities are being touched, there's always something not to like but, in this case, it couldn't be blamed on the surprisingly top cast nor on the movie's tone of absurdist humor.

Molly Shannon gives it her comedic best-in-show with a portrayal of dog owner Peggy, secretary to Robin (Josh Pais), a boss whose quirkiness matches her own in degree if not in character. Where she is full of feeling for everything in her universe, he's emotionally numb and a narcissist to boot.

Peggy is plain, needy and entirely adapted to her circumstances of having a cherished beagle but no boyfriend in her life. In fact, attention from the opposite sex is so alien and refreshing, she accepts a date when her churlish dolt of a neighbor (John C. Reilly, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby") -- who could be indirectly responsible for Pencil's sudden sickness and death -- proposes one. Coming on to her under his knife collection is another matter, however. Her feelings for people and things don't quite reach into boorish territory.

Pencil's mortal sickness brings her to the veterinarian where she meets up with dog trainer Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) who happens to have one dog too many in his home kennel and offers to train it if Peggy will adopt it. If only it weren't an erratically viscious dog and if only Newt weren't asexual, Peggy's path might have gone in a different direction.

Sharing her plight with faithful empathy is girlfriend and co-worker Layla (Regina King, "Ray") (whose engagement to a womanizer might have been a disaster if not for Peggy's alertness and caring).

Peggy sees a lot of brother Pier (Tom McCarthy), sister-in-law Bret (Laura Dern), and their daughter, and never fails to bring gifts. Real empathy for Peggy, however, is an alien concept in this "normal" suburban household and she receives little in the way of understanding. Perhaps the funniest moment in the film is when Peggy, now an animal saviour and activist, presents her latest gifts: animals saved through a contribution and named after Pier, Bret and their daughter. The gesture is as appreciated by the couple as a tax cut.

In his first directorial effort from his own material, Mike White leaves no turdlet of irony or humor left unturned in this take on animal activism as it may apply to a generous soul of a spinsterish woman. "Saturday Night Live" trouper Shannon is both a foil for his humor and a controlled instrument for his subtle irony. In productive collaboration they, as well as the rest of the ensemble, hold a tight leash on his absurdist design of life and romance. Shannon delivers a touching performance even for the non-pet owners among us for whom someone else's obsessions and neuroses are always funny.

White cut his canines on screenwriting such small budgeters as "The School of Rock," "The Good Girl" and "Chuck & Buck," and a bunch of TV credits -- which may account for this pic's episodic construction. But none of that would particularly forshadow this take on upset bliss and adaptation to (if not surrender to) instability. Maybe he conceives storylines differently when it's for him to produce and direct.

This is not the first role in which Sarsgaard portrays a sexually unspecified man (see "Shattered Glass") and he's nothing if not convincing in his purely platonic admiration for his co-star. Reilly also strikes exactly the right note in his kludge of a next-door neighbor, neither bullying nor ready for the social circuit.

All in all, a risible piece of work with laughs that are likely to remain silent and inside, but they reach you.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


The DVD

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • Commentary by Director Mike White and star Molly Shannon
  • The Featurettes
  • The Making of Year of the Dog
  • Gag reel
  • Deleted scenes

    If you don't already own the DVD and would like to get it, just click on the DVD link above.


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    Molly Shannon as dog owner Peggy
    When nights were a howl.

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