The directorial debut of writer Mike White ("School of Rock", "Orange County", "The Good Girl", "Nacho Libre"), "Year of the Dog" is an enjoyable reinvention of former "Saturday Night Live" star Molly Shannon. Best known for wacky characters like she played in "Superstar", "Year of the Dog" sees a more toned-down Shannon who gives a great, very surprising performance here that's easily her best effort.
The comedian plays Peggy, a mousy secretary who looks consistently a bit uneasy when faced with dealing with others in the outside world. Her main friend in life is Pencil, an adorable little beagle who passes away mysteriously early in the movie. Entirely devastated, Peggy breaks down in tears, but eventually decides to move on, finding help in the form of Newt (Peter Sarsgaard, in a low-key performance that's a tad creepy), an animal activist who encourages her to be more proactive for animal rights. There's also Valentine, a giant pooch who's looking for love - and someone to help him with some issues. While a noble cause, it ends up leading Peggy down a bumpy road.
"Year of the Dog" is about the least cheery "comedy" I've seen in a while, but that's certainly not a knock against the picture, as while it's not laugh-out-loud funny, it's hopeful, and that's just as good. Shannon's performance is quite a pleasant surprise, as she does a stellar job playing an introvert that's not so inward that we can't sympathize or get a read on the character. Shannon also does an impressive job believably portraying a flawed character who progressively opens up to the outside world. The character starts to go a little overboard towards the end, but writer/director White does a superb job wrapping the film and sending Peggy off on a high note.
The supporting efforts are very good, as well, especially Laura Dern, who's very enjoyable as Peggy's rather cautious sister-in-law. This is White's directorial debut after writing several pictures and it's mostly a success. The film's simple visual style actually works well for the simple story, and as for working with actors, White has managed to get an award-worthy effort out of Shannon. This isn't a movie without some minor concerns (for example, Sarsgaard's character is rather vague, but I suppose that's on purpose), but Shannon really carries the movie quite well in what has to be one of the year's most unexpected great performances.
VIDEO: "Year of the Dog" is presented by Paramount in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film's visual style was fairly simple and straightforward, with a low-key color palette. Sharpness and detail were just average, as the picture remained a bit on the soft side throughout. Some slight edge enhancement and a couple of traces of artifacting were spotted in a scene or two, but the majority of the movie looked clear and clean. Colors appeared subdued, but this looked to be the intended appearance.
SOUND: "Year of the Dog"'s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was about as low-key as the color palette, although that's to be expected, given the dialogue-driven nature of the movie. Surrounds were really not used much at all throughout the film, save for one or two instances of minor ambience. Audio quality was fine, with clear dialogue and no distortion or other issues.
EXTRAS: Writer/director Mike White and actress Molly Shannon contribute an enjoyable and insightful (if somewhat low-key) commentary for the flick. Additionally, we get a "making of" featurette, 7 deleted scenes, an amusing gag reel, "Special Animal Unit" (working with the dogs and dog trainers) featurette, "Moviefone: Unscripted" (White and Shannon interview one another), "Being Molly Shannon" featurette, "Mike White Unleashed" featurette and an insert reel.
Final Thoughts: A simple, offbeat character study, "Year of the Dog" is carried nicely by Molly Shannon's very good performance. The film isn't going to be everyone's cup-of-tea, but I'd recommend checking it out as a rental. The DVD offers fine audio/video quality and a nice selection of extras.
The Film B