Monday Movie: Year of the Dog, by David Bax
During my first couple of years living in Los Angeles, I bounced around from one P.A. job to another. A lot of them were weird one-offs for forgotten TV shows or uncredited freelance work for a weekend here or there. There were really only two movies that I worked on for the duration as a regular P.A. One of those was Mike White’s directorial debut (and still lone feature effort as a director), Year of the Dog. White was already a screenwriter and actor of whom I considered myself a big fan and I was excited to be working on his film. But somehow, when your relation to a movie is defined by sitting in traffic on endless errands and making sure the office fridge is stocked with the right flavor of fancy tea, the experience becomes dimmed. So it took me a long while to address Year of the Dog on its own terms, where I found it to be an insightful and deeply sympathetic look at society’s outsiders, even with its occasionally nasty sense of humor.
White displays a magnificent talent for casting. Regina King, Tom McCarthy, Josh Pais, John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard and especially Laura Dern, who is hilarious here, are all actors with a talent for grounded, naturalistic comedy. It’s perfect for White’s dry and sharp-edged sense of humor, where laughs often exist to keep the pain at bay. That leads to the real revelation of the cast, Molly Shannon. Shannon had brought sadness to her comedic characters before, in Wet Hot American Summer’s jilted wife or the inspiring, self-conscious oddball Mary Katherine Gallagher, whom she played on Saturday Night Live and in Bruce McCullough’s wild and misunderstood Superstar. But no role before this one had asked her to tap into one of her misfits with such tenderness and sensitivity. Her Peggy, a lonely lady whose life simultaneously falls apart and begins anew with the death of her dog, is exactly the kind of solitary individual most of us probably ignore every day, even if we’re one of them in our own eccentric ways.
Mike White excels at writing these everyday weirdoes who latch onto acceptance when it’s offered to them. In Chuck & Buck, it was a childhood friend come back into the odd bird’s orbit. Here, it’s Sarsgaard’s asexual dog lover, offering Peggy enrollment into the clubs called “vegan” and “activist.” With Year of the Dog, White proved he could direct as perceptively as he could write. I hope he does more of it. I’ll even pick him up some tea if he wants.