Monday, April 30, 2007

 

To err is human, to forgive canine

By Edward Copeland
Mike White dwells in the realm of the uncomfortable as a writer, from his strange sleeper Chuck and Buck to an episode of TV's Freaks and Geeks, "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," that made NBC so nervous, it refused to ever air it. He's also written more palatable fare such as the script for the fun School of Rock.

Now, White makes his directing debut with Year of the Dog, a mixed bag that's more Chuck than Rock.


Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon stars as Peggy and while I could always take or leave her work before, she unquestionably is the glue that holds Year of the Dog together as well as it can be.

Peggy's life revolves around her precious beagle Pencil and it is torn apart when Pencil unexpectedly dies, the victim of toxic poisoning, spinning the solitary Peggy out of control. As with most of White's writing, Year of the Dog mixes satire and the darkly comic with pathos and here, the mix doesn't quite hold together except for Shannon, who seems to be the only performer in the talented cast who grounds the entire enterprise in reality.

She's definitely a believer when animal rescue worker Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) tells her he understands her grief because animals aren't petty and they don't backstab the way people do. (I'm not one of the borderline crazy animal rights activists, but it's harder to argue with the fact that I've been fucked over far more often by humans than by animals.)

Of course, Newt is as damaged as Peggy (and most of the characters in a Mike White universe). Really, is Peggy's sister-in-law Bret (Laura Dern) any crazier in her obsession with her children's safety than others are shown in their concerns about animals? (A delousing incident isn't just tearing apart the first grade, as her husband Pier (Thomas McCarthy) says, but "the entire community," she insists.)

When Peggy gives her niece the gift of a DVD of Babe, Bret worries that it might be "too dramatic" for the child. The problem is that it's not clear what White's attitude toward his characters really is. They all seem to be being held up for ridicule, but Shannon is the only actor whose character remains consistent throughout.

Dern is shrill and silly at most points, but then is expected to be taken as a truly concerned person later. Sarsgaard suffers from the same problem. The only members of the cast who seem to create a character and stay true to it throughout are Josh Pais as Peggy's boss, John C. Reilly as her neighbor and, most especially, Regina King as Peggy's co-worker, who thinks she just needs a good lay.

Shannon's Peggy almost manages to save the entire enterprise, truly creating a sympathetic character who fills the loneliness of her life with the unconditional love of her pet while not sacrificing her character's essential instability.

It is too bad that White's entire film couldn't hold together as well as Peggy, because her tale is a touching one and could have easily managed the right recipe of laughs and tears. Instead, after it's over, you're more likely to leave scratching your head as if you've got a bad case of fleas. Then again, maybe it's that first-grade lice outbreak. Either way, Year of the Dog needs some kind of treatment.


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Comments:
I couldn't stand this movie.

I'm not a fan of Mike White, even though I am still reeling from the shock of loving School of Rock. Both Chuck and Buck and this film give the main characters passes that they do not earn. White seems to neglect all sense of reason, as if he is so in love with his characters that he can't see how unrealistic they are, even in his own universe. Even worse, he wants us to love them too.

It worked in School of Rock because it moved fast, had some great music and was the perfect vehicle for the usually annoying Jack Black. Chuck and Buck fails because it says "got a sexual stalker? Wanna get rid of him? Fuck him!" After that, the guy's normal? I didn't buy that for a second.

Year of the Dog fails for even bigger reasons. (Spoilers!!) I would rather have spent my time with Pencil instead of this warped, boring bitch. Molly Shannon is even creepier and more annoying than White was in C&B. I got that I wasn't supposed to take Laura Dern and Regina King (both of whom I thought were good here) seriously, but White wants me to take Shannon's plight seriously despite his shaky shifts in tone. Am I supposed to find her dementia endearing or scary? White doesn't know, and I had a hard time stretching my suspension of disbelief with his lazy screenwriting.

The woman breaks into a house and tries to stab her neighbor to death, for God's sake, over a dog that may or may not have eaten poison in his garage on a night she shouldn't have left him out in the first place. Everybody in the movie acts fine about it. She turns into a psycho cat lady, but with dogs. Give me a fucking break.

She embezzles from her boss AND commits forgery but he forgives her and gives her the same job handling his finances back? Bullshit.

The only good thing I got from this movie is a strengthening of my belief that animal rights people are looney tunes. They should sue Mike White.
 
My problem with the movie was that it seemed as if White couldn't decide whether he was ridiculing everyone or not. Yes, Peggy is crazy and does some things that would probably not be forgiven under normal circumstances, but I still felt for her anyway. As unstable as she is, she seemed to be the only character I believed was real while all the others seem to operate solely as caricatures. As sick and twisted as Chuck and Buck was, I still have to admit that I liked it (if that's the right word).
 
I didn't find C&B as sick and twisted as I found it dishonest. I could buy the general premise, and think it's a better film than YotD. There were some very good ideas in the movie (the play, for example), and a killer turn by Lupe Ontiveros, but I truly resented how White resolves the film. Buck gets what he wants, and then he's "normal," even looking at women and wishing his obsession well? I was astonished. Every good thing in the film was tossed out the window.

I felt for Peggy initially--I've lost several dogs over the years--but this film is as dishonest as Chuck & Buck. White lets his characters get away with things they should not; their taking responsibility would make a stronger, more interesting movie. I don't know if he's trying to make me feel good about the losers he populates his films with, but I dislike it.
 
I'm not sure either. With Year of the Dog, it felt to me as if everyone was there to be mocked but that somehow Shannon found a way with her performance to break through the ridicule. I do agree that Chuck & Buck was a better movie, especially thanks to Ontiveros.
 
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