Year of the Dog 3.0 stars

Offbeat comedy (meaning that the audience is not orchestrated into fortissimo laughter, but left, as it were, to play by ear) revolving around a fortyish dog-loving spinster who loses a dog, acquires and loses another one, acquires and loses fifteen more, and finally finds a new self. Part of that new self is vegan ("It's nice to have a word that can describe you. I've never had that before"), and most of it is animal-rightist, and none of it is bound up in identification with, or dependence on, or relation to, another person. Individuality incarnate. The path to get there encroaches uncomfortably at times on the personal space and rights of others, and even edges dangerously close to madness, and yet it's generally amusing to follow and in the end quite affecting. Defying expectations every step of the way, the film does a number of things well. Grief over a pet, for starters, gets its full due, with only microscopic traces of irony. Canine cuteness, meantime, is kept on a prudently tight leash, and slobbiness given ample room to roam. The secondary characters equally and democratically pull their weight: the adenoidal nose-to-the-grindstone boss (Josh Pais), the monomaniacally marriage-minded black co-worker (Regina King), the knife collector and Not So Great White Hunter right next door (John C.Reilly), the asexual animal-shelter dog trainer (Peter Sarsgaard), the Ken and Barbie brother and sister-in-law (Thomas McCarthy and Laura Dern) and their stiflingly sheltered offspring. And the lead performance of Molly Shannon, one of the less illustrious SNL alumni, could well form the foundation of a legacy. She shows herself here to be a very good listener, a polite, selfless, sympathetic, empathic, active, demonstrative listener, and the sketch-artistry of her TV work overall has blossomed into thoroughgoing meticulous draftsmanship. One might only wish that the distinct sensibility of writer and first-time director Mike White (author or co-author of Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl, School of Rock, Nacho Libre), who wrote the script specially for Shannon, had stretched a bit further into the visual side of things. The mug-shot frontalism and flat symmetries of his compositions tend toward the clunky, and the diluted color seems to encase the images in frosty plastic, like the family photos in your wallet. 2007.

Duncan Shepherd

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