Screenwriter-turned-director Mike White once said in an interview that the germ of Chuck & Buck, the picture that put him on the map, came with the crotch-grabbing scene. He didn’t want to make it a serious romantic crotch-grab, and he didn’t want to make it a horsing-around gag out of Dumb and Dumber. White simply started with a crotch-grab, in what one imagines to be a rather eccentric creative process, and asked himself what kind of story would lead up to a scene like that.
I admire a screenwriter prepared to ask himself those kinds of questions. Chuck & Buck also contains one of the most jarring plot twists in black-comedy history, and while I think it might have blinded me to some of the movie’s shortcomings, it also convinced me that White wasn’t a formula writer. He wasn’t afraid to take risks. It’s mostly crap to talk about “brave” roles for actors and actresses, but a certain audacity in screenwriting, at least, still counts for something in my book.
Small accolades kept coming. With The Good Girl, White wrote a movie that helped Jennifer Aniston get taken seriously as an actor. School of Rock—not a great movie, but not bad by a long chalk either—gave Jack Black a vehicle for his oversized comic presence with some emotional pith to it. I avoided Nacho Libre, which White also wrote, because of its connection with Napoleon Dynamite, and because the idea of an ironic Mexican wrestling movie didn’t sound especially brave in a film-comedy climate already saturated with Ben Stiller. But I was excited to see Year of the Dog. I expected risks again.
And I expected discomfort. The humor of discomfort in its various forms currently accounts for about 80 percent of American film comedy. At one end of the spectrum there’s the merciless Todd Solondz, thrusting his wounded characters into black-humor situations and letting us decide for ourselves whether to laugh or not, if it’s funny or sad or both. At the other end is Stiller, modern master of the uncomfortable moment in which we always know that we’re supposed to laugh and when we’re supposed to laugh. White is somewhere in the middle. You know you’re supposed to laugh at some things, but there are also parts that make nervous laughs slip out at inappropriate times.
Usually, anyway. White’s comic tone, always gentler than Solondz’s, is so meek and docile in Year of the Dog that its teeth never break skin. It’s more like White can’t find a tone at all, and without that tone to chime in on, the movie’s otherwise entertaining comic performances start clanging off one another.
The first seven or eight minutes of the movie are supposed to establish how boring Molly Shannon’s character’s life is. Peggy works at a boring cubicle job. On the job and off, she’s surrounded by dullards and mouth-breathers and saccharine ultra-moms and pushy co-workers, all introduced as walking caricatures. The high point of Peggy’s day is visiting the dog park with her beagle, Pencil. Afterward they watch TV and snuggle. She reacts to everything in her life with the same grimace.
Amid this pageant of banality something bad happens to Pencil, but it barely registers in the movie’s incipient emotional monotone. Two more people are introduced: John C. Reilly as Peggy’s next-door neighbor, briefly an actual character before receding into the woodwork, and Peter Sarsgaard as a veterinary assistant yearning Pinocchio-like to be a real character. All the characters in Year of the Dog have to contend with this yearning in some fashion; Laura Dern seems to have the most fun by resigning herself to being one-dimensional. Sarsgaard deserves credit for bringing the wounded, asexual Newt back from the edge of bald caricature, if only barely. Molly Shannon’s Peggy is, unfortunately, the most poorly written character in the movie.
It’s not a problem of knowing when to laugh or not laugh, but of knowing whether we’re supposed to care. The main obstacle to enjoying this movie is the clash between the over-the-top caricatures and the low whisper of White’s non-direction. Except where Pencil is concerned, Shannon’s Peggy is nearly nonreactive, while the other performances just keep getting in your face without really adding anything, certainly anything you might call depth or dimension. It’s hard to root for anybody, but equally difficult to keep these vulnerable types at Solondzian arm’s-length. None of the characters do anything cowardly or reprehensible; they’re just self-absorbed alimentary canals blindly bumping into each other. Year of the Dog lacks the uneasy but oddly genuine human touch of White at his best.
In the end it turns mildly ludicrous: Molly Shannon living with 12 dogs rescued from the dog pound, a flimsy attempt to justify a charming shot of all 12 pooches panting out the windows of her compact car. Peggy reacts to the Pencil tragedy by embracing veganism; in spite of White being a vegan himself and conspicuously working a low-key agenda into the second half of the movie, veganism here is treated as something between an uncomfortable discussion topic and a form of mental illness. It’s not mined for laughs or exploited with groan-inducing earnestness. Like everything else in the movie, it’s just kind of lies there.