Dir/Scr: Mike White. US. 2007. 98mins.
Mike White's outre wit and malicious satirical imagination is shown to sometimes spectacular effect in Year of the Dog. It is an alternately strange, puzzling and highly peculiar directing debut about a woman whose private trauma, coupled with her professional failure and romantic disappointment, violently unsettles her.
In his scripts from Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl and School of Rock, White has displayed an unsentimental, ink black sensibility, using words like knives to vivisect religious intolerance and corporate conformity, or even better, unfurling startlingly direct and intense expressions of sexual longing.
As a writer of one-liners, he is unsurpassed, expertly balancing the funny, outrageous and crude. 'Even retarded, crippled people get married,' says one marriage obsessed office worker. From the opaque references to his stylized visual design, Year of the Dog is an exceptionally tough sell, a movie that is possibly too smart, strange and unclassifiable to attract a mainstream audience.
The likely target audience is older teenagers and young males, the pop junkies who gravitate around works such as Mike Judge, Rushmore, Napoleon Dynamite, Dilbert, The Simpsons, The Office and intuitively recognize the off-centre humor and anarchic structure. The movie's rude playfulness is certain to both alienate and attract viewers. Secondary home video and cable markets are the likely strongest revenue currents. Internationally the movie is bound to work only in English language markets, where some understanding of language and context is vital.
The movie's deliciously imagined heroine, Peggy (Shannon) is revealed as a font of optimism and good faith, a capable executive assistant and attentive, caring sister and aunt. Her emotional satisfaction resides entirely in the form of Pencil, an alert, obedient beagle.
After the beloved dog dies after being mysteriously exposed to a toxic poison, followed by a succession of striking romantic failures, Peggy undergoes a startling reversal that is either righteous or demented. Turning into a vengeful warrior, she embezzles money to help fund radical animal rights groups that protest scientific and animal experiments.
In a mad act of Christian charity, she takes possession of 15 dogs marked for euthanasia. She also takes violent retribution against her neighbor and failed suitor (Reilly), a hunting enthusiast whom she blames for the death of her dog. White's recurrent problem is form and structure.
Stuffed with incident and detail, moving from class envy to berserk materialism, Year of the Dog is largely hit and miss, buoyant, rude and playfully nasty at its best. It is also sometimes inchoate and jerky in its rhythms and movements. A veteran of Saturday Night Live, Shannon works wonders with the part, her face a constantly changing mask of happiness, satisfaction, rage and impudence.
In the large, very capable supporting cast, Reilly is excellent as a suburban comic foil, though the strongest work comes from King as Debby' office colleague and Pais as her hilariously unsettled boss. Technically, cinematographer Tim Orr's visual design is both bright and oppressive, the fixed camera appearing to constantly undermine or unsettle the characters.
Christophe Beck's music is also disruptive and funky. Dody Dorn's editing feels too often like television, a succession of reaction shots. The movie is genuinely subversive in how it oscillates between madness and the divine, never assigning absolute conviction or certainty to Peggy's actions, never wholly judging or condemning them, presenting them as an elaborate consequence of her aggrieved situation.
It does not betray his talent though it also never quite expands on his considerable gifts.
Black & White Productions
John C Reilly
Josh Pais Amy