In "Year of the Dog ," a tender comedy by Mike White , all that stands between an uneventful life and mania is the sudden death of a pet. That's what happens to a drab executive assistant named Peggy when Pencil, her adorable beagle, eats something toxic. If you live with an animal (and are possibly single), the resonance may be hard to miss: This could be you. But the movie doesn't feel like a work of judgment. Not of Peggy , anyway.
Sympathetically played by Molly Shannon, Peggy is a loyal, active listener: to her vixen co-worker (Regina King ), her heartless yet spineless boss (Josh Pais ), and her brother (Tom McCarthy ) and his over-mothering wife (Laura Dern ). But none are there for her after Pencil's death. Her grief makes them visibly uncomfortable. (I don't recall anyone offering a single hug.) She goes to dinner with the kindly schlub (John C. Reilly ) next door, but he's not right for her: He shot his own dog hunting moose.
One day she gets a call from a guy named Newt (Peter Sarsgaard ). He works at the vet's office, and he wants to know if she'd have any interest in adopting a rescued dog before the city of Los Angeles puts him down. She agrees, and life starts looking up.
It isn't the new dog per se (he's an unstable handful), it's the moral clarity she finds in adopting him and befriending Newt, an asexual vegan animal-rights activist. The man breaks her heart but not before she tries his lifestyle for herself.
Soon she's sending checks in her boss's name to political organizations and threatening to take her sheltered niece to slaughterhouses to see "that life's not like 'Babe.' " By the time she bottoms out, bringing 15 energetic death-row canines home, Peggy no longer resembles a sweet librarian. She looks like Isabelle Huppert in the psychological-horror show "The Piano Teacher ." Indeed, as Peggy's behavior grows more unhinged, the movie's music-box score echoes like the piano-twinkles from "The Exorcist " and "Halloween ."
Yet White maintains an upbeat tone throughout "Year of the Dog." He knows Peggy's breakdown will become a breakthrough. But that comes at the expense of a nagging reality: she's totally losing it. Where's the intervention?
White has written the screenplays for such comedies as "Chuck and Buck ," which he creepily starred in, "The Good Girl ," "School of Rock ," and "Nacho Libre ." Adult childishness is his m.o. So is the glibness of television, where White got his start. Very little sticks emotionally to the characters in "Year of the Dog." Except for Peggy, just about everyone appears to be made of Teflon.
Matters aren't helped by White's filmmaking. This is his first outing as a director. His camera is inert, his framing rudimentary, alienating even. And because the scenes don't quite build up to something, but sit alongside each other like eggs in a carton, the movie feels too long even at an hour and a half.
White seems unsure of whether it's a farce or a character study or a sitcom, and he isn't accomplished enough to combine the three. But he is perceptive and gentle enough a director to allow Peggy to become a dog person of tragic proportions without laughing at her. He's a humorist with a humane core.
His biggest asset is Shannon, a former "Saturday Night Live" star whose career wilted after she left the show. Shannon has a long, sharp nose, beady eyes that narrow with ease, and a wonderfully mercurial face that goes from elated to wounded to bereft to expectant to disappointed in a single take. She gives the movie its inner life. Maybe the movie will give her back her comedy career.