Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the release of Andy Samberg’s Palm Springs and the latest Ghostbusters sequel getting pushed to 2021, we’re highlighting movies starring Saturday Night Live alumni.
Year Of The Dog (2007)
Released in the back stretch of a decade rich with downer comedies, Year Of The Dog launched the directing career of School Of Rock screenwriter Mike White. Beyond his early script work on a number of Jack Black vehicles, White also created Enlightened, the subversive HBO series starring Laura Dern as a scorned corporate executive who turns to yoga and Buddhist self-help books after a nervous breakdown. Year Of The Dog plays, in some respects, like a dry run to that series: Its story, about a mousy secretary who becomes a vegetarian and animal-rights advocate after the death of her dog, anticipates the bittersweet pleasures of Enlightened—its balancing act of compassion and mockery. The zealous animal-rights advocate is as ripe for parody as the self-help guru, but Year Of The Dog thoughtfully and quite touchingly considers how personal reinvention is also a way of healing, a balm against the feelings of meaninglessness generated by life’s big and small tragedies.
Molly Shannon plays soft-spoken bachelorette Peggy Spade. When Pencil, her doe-eyed pet beagle, unexpectedly passes after a night left unattended in the backyard, Peggy finds herself lonely and adrift without the pup’s warm companionship. Her drab and delusional boss, Robin (Josh Pais), now seems particularly callous; her genial but marriage-obsessed best friend, Layla (Regina King), more frivolous than ever. Few understand the extent to which she is rattled by Pencil’s death. When she visits her brother and his family hoping for comfort and an attentive audience, he’s distracted, and uptight sister-in-law Bret (Dern) would rather Peggy not mention d-e-a-t-h around their young daughter. As kind and considerate a friend as Peggy is to others, everyone seems to shrug at her crisis. It’s just a dog.
The impressive cast is rounded out by John C. Reilly as a doltish, macho neighbor with whom Peggy goes on a disastrous date, and Peter Sarsgaard as Newt, a dweeby trainer and volunteer at the Society For The Prevention Of Animal Cruelty. It’s sensitive Newt who cold calls Peggy to see if she might consider adopting Valentine, a German shepherd with behavioral issues. Valentine proves to be irremediably violent—but maybe Newt, who becomes an influential presence in Peggy’s life, can fill the Pencil-shaped hole in her heart? Any dog-lover can tell you that humans are disappointing compared to our loyal canine companions. Still, the dog trainer introduces Peggy to the world of veganism and advocacy, which rapidly becomes for her an obsession and an outlet for the rage and hurt of losing her beloved pet.
White keeps the satire to a low, existential boil as each character proves self-absorbed and consumed by their individual fixations. At her lowest point, Peggy spirals into a sort of caricature of meat-is-murder zealotry, forging donation checks to PETA-like organizations and drunkenly destroying Bret’s collection of fur coats. Shannon shifts into a wild-eyed, nearly off-putting desperation—a striking change from the character’s once demure and pliant demeanor. It’s all motivated by a yearning for empathy: If she can convince others to care about factory farms and shelter dogs, maybe she won’t feel so alone. These are dark times for Peggy, but her ultimately childlike nuttiness keeps the movie from getting too somber. The inevitable fallout is trailed by a rushed, somewhat lackluster aha moment, yet a certain clarity is achieved that illuminates the rest of the film and steers it away from mere subculture parody. The dog-obsessed are certainly mocked, but Year Of The Dog also underlines the empowerment that comes with caring for something other than yourself.