Twisting the Formula 

SNL alum Molly Shannon finds new depth in Year of the Dog.

You know how the formula goes: Single, aging woman experiences some kind of traumatic event, and, through her coping with it, she begins meeting men and dating. The first couple of guys are decent enough but have some kind of deal-breaker characteristic that makes them unsuitable for her. However, she eventually connects with the right guy (double points if he was there for her all along), and they end up happily ever after. Cut, print, that's a wrap.

Year of the Dog, the directorial debut of screenwriter Mike White (Chuck & Buck, The School of Rock), follows this formula for about half the movie. Peggy (Molly Shannon) is the ostensible old maid, but she finds great contentment and love in her best friend, her adorable beagle Pencil. That is, until Pencil dies of a mysterious poisoning. Peggy grieves, but her pet's death puts her in contact with two potential suitors: her next-door neighbor Al (John C. Reilly) and Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), a pet-adoption-services manager.

Just when Year of the Dog should be introducing Peggy's soul mate, however, the film undergoes a tonal shift. Instead of finding healing in her fellow man, Peggy realizes she had it right to begin with: Humans only disappoint. Animals never let you down. In a way, Year of the Dog does fit the stereotypical plot trajectory. Just replace the third-act love interest with animal-rights activism.

The biggest surprise in the film is Saturday Night Live alum Shannon. Best known for outrageous sketch-comedy characters (sniffing her armpit-scented fingers as Mary Katherine Gallagher or playing mommy to the canine Mr. Rocky Balboa on the skit "Dog Show"), in Year of the Dog, Shannon is not only given a role of unprecedented breadth to work with but convinces with her subtlety that this is the kind of work she needs to continue to do. She brings a real sweetness and warmth to the part, and, after Pencil dies, Shannon carefully traces Peggy's path from innocent sadness toward a darker destination. It's a bit of a courageous role because Peggy is not always sympathetic and because, intended or not, Shannon looks every bit her age: Cinematographer Tim Orr finds every one of her wrinkles.

White's direction is able, as understated as his story if a little shaky in doses. Year of the Dog feels like a distant cousin of Napoleon Dynamite (White co-wrote last year's Nacho Libre with Dynamite filmmakers Jared and Jerusha Hess). At final tally, the closest Year of the Dog comes to a curse word is "darn" and "crap" ("bitch" is used once, but in the dog sense); until Dog, Dynamite was probably the last movie to bother with having characters expressing frustration with empty expletives.

Dog is nowhere near as funny as Dynamite, mostly because it's nowhere near as bizarre. But it is as observant, and some of Dog's supporting characters, particularly those supplied by Sarsgaard, Reilly, and Laura Dern, wouldn't be out of place in Dynamite's world. (Right down to the costuming: Sarsgaard wears a T-shirt as incidentally funny in its guilelessness as anything Napoleon wears.)

Year of the Dog is a movie of great and admirable conviction. If it's not the most ambitious movie in scope or message — proselytizing about animal rights does not seem to be on the agenda — it is laudable for perfectly filling out the little niche it sets aside for itself. The film proves its humanity by treating Pencil's death as seriously as Peggy does.

Year of the Dog

Opening Friday, April 27th

Studio on the Square

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