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Year of the Dog Reviews

Screenwriter Mike White has written several high-profile movies since he first won acclaim for CHUCK & BUCK, Miguel Arteta's dark comedy of discomfort in which White also starred. Few (THE GOOD GIRL, SCHOOL OF ROCK, NACHO LIBRE) lived up to White's initial promise, but the wait for a worthy follow-up ends with this poker-faced black comedy about a woman whose life unravels after the death of her beloved pet. Like CHUCK & BUCK, it explores the funny/sad life of a character whose obsessions push her well beyond the limits of acceptable behavior. To all appearances, there's nothing particularly wrong with Peggy Spade's (Molly Shannon) life: She has a tidy home in Southern California, a decent job working for a whiny sales executive (Josh Pais), and enough interaction with her brother, Pier (Tom McCarthy), his wife Bret (Laura Dern), and an office friend named Layla (Regina King) to count as a social life. But look closer and it's clear that none of these relationships go very deep: Though she listens patiently while Layla and Bret obsess over the details of their own lives, Peggy only tells them what they want to hear and shares little of herself. At the end of the day, Peggy goes home to the only living creature with whom she shares a deep emotional bond: her beagle, Pencil. But loyal, unconditionally loving Pencil precipitates a crisis in Peggy's life the night he leaves her to root around in the yard of her next-door neighbor, Al (John C. Reilly). The next morning Peggy finds Pencil in critical condition; she rushes him to the local animal clinic, but it's too late: Pencil has eaten something toxic and has died. Grief-stricken and vulnerable, Peggy allows Al to take her to dinner, but when he reveals himself to be an avid hunter who once accidentally shot his own dog, Peggy is repelled and begins to question the role Al might have played in Pencil's untimely demise. Besides, she's more interested in the pet clinic's client-services manager, Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), who calls to see if Peggy would be interested in adopting a rescue dog to replace Pencil. When he offers to help her train Valentine, a German shepherd with food-aggression issues, Peggy sees a rare possibility for a romance of the human variety, and says yes to the dog and the training. Soon Peggy's completely under Newt's spell, pressuring coworkers to adopt rescued dogs and even going so far as to follow Newt's example and become an avid vegan. But when Peggy realizes that Newt is even less capable of carrying on a grown-up relationship with an actual human being than she is, the disappointment in yet another human relationship sends her into animal-rights overdrive and precipitates a psychotic breakdown that threatens to destroy her life. It may sound as if first-time director White is having his fun at the expense of introverted, asocial people who prefer the company of cats and dogs and gravitate toward animal-rights activism because the very idea of dealing with human problems requires an empathy they can't muster. But empathy is exactly what makes the film work. Like his treatment of CHUCK & BUCK's emotionally stunted protagonist, White has an outsider's sympathy for Peggy's loss and instinctively understands how the selfishness of people can drive a sensitive person to the company of animals.