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Year of the Dog

(2007) *** Pg-13
98 min. Paramount Vantage. Director: Mike White. Cast: Molly Shannon, Peter Sarsgaard, Regina King, John C. Reilly, Laura Dern.

Mike White's social satire Year of the Dog thrives on bone-dry humor. The story of Peggy (Molly Shannon), a woman struggling to accept her own love-predilection, the film offers up a panoply of recognizably self-absorbed modern archetypes. None of these characters satisfies Peggy's emotional needs—she needs a dog in her life. At first, she has one, a cute little thing named Pencil. But when Pencil meets an untimely demise, Peggy becomes unmoored, and vulnerable to the varied examples set by her friends and family.

Peggy's brother (Thomas McCarthy) and sister-in-law (Laura Dern) are no help—consumed with their child-rearing challenges, they can only offer Peggy a lukewarm tolerance. Best friend and workmate Layla (Regina King) carries the flag for relationships and the coveted ring at the end of the rainbow. Insisting "Even retarded, crippled people get married," Layla is unwittingly dating a dawg of her own. On the advice of Layla, Peggy submits to the dating world, first with her neighbor, a hunter (John C. Reilly) with a low tolerance for pets, and then with a celibate, animal-loving vegan named Newt (Peter Sarsgaard).

Longtime screenwriter White (School of Rock) finally goes behind the camera for Year of the Dog, allowing us his undiluted, poker-faced vision. Happily, his actors get it, with Shannon giving a surprisingly controlled performance (destined to break free in the third act), and the supporting players hilarious in their peccadillos and smug lack of self-awareness. "Animals are like us," says Newt. "They live for love." As White's humane(-society) comedy proves, love isn't always easy to find.

[For Groucho's interview with Mike White, click here.]

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