- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

Peggy and Pencil are a very happy couple.

Who cares if Pencil sheds and doesn’t always come when called?

Pencil’s untimely passing sets in motion the curious events in “Year of the Dog.”

“School of Rock” screenwriter Mike White, directing his own eccentric script, delivers a warped character study that will leave some audiences agape.

Just when we think we know where “Dog” is headed, it veers toward unknown horizons.

This isn’t your standard rom-com.

The film’s originality is partly its undoing. Some will find the revelations here off-putting, to say the least.

But Mr. White is a sly one, crafting the pivotal scenes to work within the film’s mercurial logic.

Molly Shannon plays Peggy, a 30-something single woman who finds enough companionship in her adorable beagle, Pencil.

One night Pencil wanders off and doesn’t come back.

Peggy goes out to look for her, but when she finally finds Pencil the poor dog is gravely ill.

She rushes to the veterinarian’s office with Pencil breathing shallowly in her arms, but it’s too late. Pencil is gone.

Most dog owners would be crushed to lose their pets unexpectedly, but Pencil’s passing leaves Peggy unmoored.

She can’t be cheered up by her lively co-worker Layla (Regina King, terrific as ever) or the clumsy advances from a gun-loving neighbor (John C. Reilly). Hanging around her brother and his insufferable wife (a feisty Laura Dern) makes things worse.

She eventually adopts a new dog and spends time with a fellow dog lover named Newt (Peter Sarsgaard).

Contentment still eludes her, and we’re not quite sure why.

Mr. White doesn’t flesh out Peggy’s past enough for us to connect the requisite dots. Suffice to say Peggy feels closer to her four-legged friends than the humans around her, and it only gets worse as the story unfolds.

Miss Shannon, a firecracker on “Saturday Night Live,” makes Peggy as bruised and authentic as Mr. White’s film demands. There’s barely a trace of her beauty, oversized comic talents or Mary Katherine Gallagher character visible in the performance.

“Year of the Dog” isn’t sappy, romantic or laugh out loud funny. It’s downright painful at times, particularly watching Peggy teeter toward self-destruction.

Mr. White’s film strips the standard applause elements away, yet concocts a winning formula thanks to Miss Shannon and a character arc we rarely see.

***

TITLE: “Year of the Dog”

RATING: PG-13 (Adult language and disturbing themes)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Mike White. Executive produced by Nan Morales and Brad Pitt.

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes

WEB SITE: www.yearofthedogmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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