I'm not sure I ever expected to say this, but it's true..."Saturday Night Live" alum Molly Shannon saves "Year of the Dog," the directorial debut from screenwriter Mike White ("The Good Girl," "Nacho Libre" and "School of Rock").
Seldom have I seen such a career-defining performance as is present here with Shannon's remarkably heartfelt, humorous and dignified portrayal of Peggy, a 40ish year-old woman who has never been married and seems comfortable only when she's at home in the company of her beloved beagle pup, Pencil. When an untimely tragedy befalls Pencil after a late-night romp to the neighbor's house, Peggy's entire world crumbles around her and her attempts to normalize, socialize and/or simply find a way to connect are tragic and, yes, uncomfortably funny.
Shannon has made a career out of broad, physical comedy channeled through outrageous characters. As much as I've loved Shannon's comedy for years, who'd have thought she was capable of such a sensitive, subtle performance?
"Year of the Dog" falls somewhere in between the everyday cynicism of "The Good Girl" and the good-natured quirkiness of "Nacho Libre." White, as he has shown so many times before, clearly embraces the quirkiness of his characters to such a degree that, even as Peggy's behavior deteriorates over the course of the film, it's never quite clear who's normal and who's not.
Does normal even exist?
As White makes clear early on, Peggy's world is quite different from everyone else's, long before Pencil's tragic accident. Everyone around her is self-obsessed, insecure and, much like Peggy, using the only coping skills they really know.
There's her best friend, Layla (Regina King), a beautiful young woman obsessed with marriage and who whines incessantly while trying to get her boyfriend to pop the question. When he finally does, she proudly proclaims "My whining finally paid off." Marriage, clearly, is Layla's only way to define herself and cope with life.
Then, there's her boss (Josh Pais), a materialistic and work-obsessed man whose constantly questioning work assignments, financial rewards and virtually anything that may prove an obstacle to his success.
Even her brother (Thomas McCarthy) and his wife (Laura Dern) seem perfect on the outside, but closer inspection reveals a couple whose perfection borders on perversion and whose parenting style is frightening, to say the least.
Yet, among this abnormal "normalcy," Peggy is still constantly regarded as the outcast. After Pencil dies, Peggy's desperation for connection leads her to a date with her seemingly sympathetic neighbor (John C. Reilly), whom she later learns enjoys hunting and may just own the poison that caused Pencil's death. When she finally appears to find a real connection with SPCA member (Peter Sarsgaard), she completely alters every aspect of who she is by claiming veganism and turning her brother's young daughter into a militant animal rights activist, as well.
In the hands of many actresses, Peggy may well have been turned into either an eccentric old animal lover or nothing but a caricature. In Shannon's hands, Peggy is fully alive, fully human and, yes, desperately trying to hang on when the one thing she loves most in life goes away. Her scenes of grief are utterly heartbreaking, and watching her stumble her way through a grief that nobody around her understands is an emotional, sorrowful journey filled with the most uncomfortable kind of laughter...the laughter that comes when we know we're screwing up but we just can't seem to stop.
As brilliant as Shannon is as Peggy, she's surrounded by a remarkable cast of supporting characters. Most notably, Sarsgaard turns an underwritten role into a multi-faceted character whose militant support of all things PETA borders on frightening but never becomes superficial. Likewise, Pais is spot-on perfect as Peggy's boss, while Laura Dern is gleefully delightful as the in-law from hell (especially for a militant PETA member). As her self-obsessed, narcissistic best friend, Regina King provides a remarkable contrast to Shirley's more socially awkward, withdrawn character. McCarthy and Reilly, whose roles are both a tad too underwritten, still manages to turn in impressive performances.
There are so many moments in "Year of the Dog" where it's nearly impossible to figure out whether to laugh or cry. In essence, though, that's the beauty of it all. Grief doesn't really make sense, and sometimes you laugh when you shouldn't and cry when you least expect it. One never really knows if Peggy's going to end up that weird old lady who has 50 dogs in her house or if, perhaps, she might retreat and become what society considers normal.
The truth, ultimately, lies somewhere in the middle.
Kudos to the film's production team, especially those responsible for Shannon's costuming and make-up. The team beautifully captures Shannon's joys and sorrows and, particularly, those times when she seems to possibly be losing it all.
Behind a remarkably sensitive, heartfelt and surprisingly tender performance from Molly Shannon, "Year of the Dog" proves that 2007 may also be the year of Molly Shannon.
- Richard Propes
The Independent Critic